Thursday, March 06, 2008

Perspective on the Digital Divide

In the latest Rex Foundation newsletter, Ken McNeely, President – External Affairs for AT&T California, suggests that there must be a “will to change” among the public at large with regard to broadband Internet service -- and the importance of ensuring universal access to that service. He notes it will take corporate political will, in combination with policy makers, to effect the changes needed to ensure digital inclusion.

Looking at earlier products or services that were deemed so essential as to require subsidized access for those who couldn't afford them, he asks, "Is broadband on the same level as subsidizing food and public education? Should every student have a computer and Internet access?"


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Monday, November 19, 2007

A New Way of Thinking?

In the current Rex newsletter, Rex Advisory Board member Jon McIntire says: "Thought cannot lead us out of our dilemmas — the nature of thought has led us to our current predicament!"

He goes on: "Much of the way we have been thinking, framing our ideas for thousands of years, needs to change if we really want to solve problems like hunger and disease."

In your experience, how can new ways of thinking lead to solutions to stubborn problems? How does inspiration come from unexpected quarters? What synergies emerge in the strangest of places?

Give us your ideas; tell us your stories.

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Thursday, November 01, 2007

A Change of Priorities

Interviewed in the current Rex newsletter, Annette Gellert of Women's Environmental Leadership Network proposes that the will to change, the momentum needed to solve the world's most intransigent problems, proceeds from a set of priorities very different from those that currently prevail.

"We need to consider our children’s health and quality of life first, with our personal interest and financial rewards second, which is the reverse of the current situation," she says. "We must consider how to take care of each other and benefit future generations, not just focus on quarterly profits."

If you look at the world with those priorities, how do your choices change? What issues become most urgent? Share your thoughts here.

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Monday, October 29, 2007

What Will It Take? Your Thoughts Please

In the current Rex Foundation newsletter, we note that in 1983 Buckminster Fuller proclaimed: "We can now solve all the problems of hunger and need across the world, having all the available resources and technology; all that we need is the political will." And yet, nearly a quarter century later, those problems and many others persist.

For the newsletter, we asked some Rex supporters for their thoughts on the question: “How do we find the will to generate positive solutions to current world challenges?" Here are some of their inspiring responses:

"The will is always a matter of the individual taking small steps and a leader at the top to help show the way." - Phil Eisengart

"Look beyond our own comfortable blessed lives and see how others less fortunate live." - Michael Fasman

"We find the will by being an example for others and working together with others for social change. We need to always have hope.” - Janet Leach

What do you think? We welcome your thoughts. We also encourage a wide range of viewpoints; please treat your fellow participants with respect.

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Monday, September 17, 2007

Watch Our Video!

Recently Rex joined forces with some of its grantees to actually engage youth in raising awareness of human rights issues, creating a stage production called "The World As It Could Be: A Declaration of Human Rights" — and producing a DVD of the event.

The main goal of this dramatization was to raise awareness about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It also exemplified the importance of using the creative arts to educate people about social, economic and political issues; at the same time, it demonstrated the value of the programs that use the arts to nurture the development of the participating young people.

By creating a permanent document of this often soul-stirring performance (at Jerry Garcia's alma mater, Balboa High School in San Francisco), we hope to make it available far beyond the original audience. In particular, teachers may find it a valuable resource in presenting issues related to human rights.

Check it out, and let us know what you think!

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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Making Peace in the Mideast, One Family at a Time

The Parents Circle – Bereaved Families Forum

By Mary Eisenhart

Peace is not a prayer, peace is in the hands of each and every one of us. Peace is not just between states, peace is between a man and his friends, man and wife, parents and their children, between neighbors, between partners, between all human beings and between states. The basis for any peace is compromise and reconciliation.

—Yitzhak Frankenthal, founder and chairman,
The Parents Circle–Bereaved Families Forum

Circle of peace: Young Forum members in Italy.

In the Middle East, losing a family member to sectarian violence is a common and grim fact of life, one that often perpetuates and exacerbates conflict. But when Yitzhak Frankenthal’s son Arik, serving in the Israeli army, was killed by Hamas activists in 1994, Frankenthal chose a different path.

“As I was sitting shivah for Arik a friend said to me, ‘Now you understand it is impossible to make peace with an enemy that understands only violence,’” he told the Village Voice in 2002. “And I knew that was all wrong. I knew the only reason Arik was murdered was that there was no peace between our peoples, and I blamed the leaders. The Palestinians were acting exactly as we would if we would be under occupation. The occupation is a kind of terror that we are doing against Palestinians, and they are doing unacceptable terror against Israelis. As a man who loves his people and his country, I decided that I had to do whatever I can to help bring reconciliation and peace. There is no other solution.”

Frankenthal began contacting other bereaved Israelis, garnering, in addition to some abuse, a core of people who wanted to meet; then they began to meet with Palestinians in the same situation. “We couldn’t make reconciliation by ourselves,” Frankenthal told the Voice, recalling the first meeting with people in Gaza. “We share the same sorrow. When someone tells you about his infant killed by a soldier, you cry the same tears as when someone tells you his child was killed by a suicide bomber. We all want no one else to suffer the pain we share.”

Young members of the Parents Circle-Bereaved Families Forum. The sign reads, in Hebrew and Arabic, "Yes to peace between us and our neighbors, the pain of peace is better than the pain of war, for our children and yours...Yes to Peace. Bereaved Families Forum, the children of Muhammad Kabha."

From that beginning, the Parents Circle/Bereaved Families Forum has expanded to include over 500 members, many of whom spend a great deal of time, in Israeli-Palestinian duos, speaking to youth and adults on both sides of the conflict — many of whom have literally never met a member of the opposite group.

Along the way spontaneous projects have arisen to increase communication and understanding, often one person at a time. In an area where military checkpoints and severe restrictions on personal travel effectively keep Israelis and Palestinians from interacting in normal human ways, the Hello Shalom/Hello Salaam project is a toll-free line that allows any Israeli to pick up the phone and talk to a random Palestinian, and vice versa. Says Robi Damelin, the Parents’ Circle public relations officer, whose son David was killed by a Palestinian sniper, “We created it in 2002 as a sort of counter to the powers that be that say there’s no one to talk to. Since then we’ve had over a million calls on this line, which is a toll-free line for all Palestinians and Israelis to talk to each other.

“Sometimes people scream at each other and say appalling things over our telephone line, but if they give each other their telephone number at the end of the conversation, which has happened, then I would think that there is some hope. That’s the beginning of talking, and it’s not throwing stones or killing each other. For me that’s very important. I don’t see anything negative about people talking to each other. Something wonderful may not come out of it, but nothing negative can come from getting to know the person on the other side.”

Her colleague Ali Abu Awwad, her speaking partner on a recent U.S. visit, also bears the scars of the conflict: the son of a politically active family, he was imprisoned for four years for his efforts in the intifada – “I threw lots of stones,” he says in the documentary Encounter Point (see sidebar). After being released, he was shot by an Israeli settler, and, while in the hospital, learned that his brother had been shot and killed by an Israeli soldier at a checkpoint.

Robi Damelin and Ali Abu Awwad

In 2003, the Parents Circle/Bereaved Families Forum received the Rex Foundation’s Bill Graham Award for its peacemaking efforts, and we were recently able to talk with Damelin and Awwad about their ongoing work. Says Damelin, ”Our group has a broader vision of two sides trying to find a way to live together, because there’ve been so many peace agreements, and very little person-to-person, people-to-people work on the ground. This is where it’s very important, what we’re doing.”

Rex Foundation: So many people who have suffered losses like yours turn to more violence, more vengeance. Why did you choose a different path?

Robi Damelin: It’s not all black and white. When I heard that David had been killed, when the army came to talk to me, my first reaction was “You may not kill anybody in the name of my child.” Now I have no idea where that came from.

I can’t talk about other people and what they do and what they don’t do. Yes, it’s true that many people think that vengeance is the way to go, but there isn’t any vengeance for a lost child. How many people would I have to kill in order to make myself feel better, and would it? It wouldn’t. So that was not an option for me ever. And I realized that the man who killed my child didn’t do it because he was David, he did it because he was a symbol of something.

So after about six months, Yitzhak Frankenthal, who was the founder of the Parents Circle, came to talk to me, and invited me to go to a seminar where there were about 60-80 Palestinians and the same amount of Israelis, all bereaved parents. I went to that seminar, and I thought that this would be a good framework for me to make a difference. I was working with other groups, but this seemed to me to be the most powerful organization that could really make a difference.

Ali Abu Awwad: It’s complicated. The majority on both sides, they don’t choose violence; they don’t react at all. They are quiet, they are silent — and this is actually a reaction, because when they are silent the other people use them. Everybody becomes a part of it without feeling it.

Most of the bereaved families are not reacting by killing each other. Somewhere there may be people who support violence inside themselves, but they don’t get it on the ground in violent behavior against each other. Maybe they hate each other, true; they are angry, and so and so, but they don’t kill each other.

I grew up in this also, not just in this daily pain and daily suffering; I also grew up in a political home. My mother used to be one of the famous leaders of Fatah, which is part of the PLO. Being in a prison and all that I have been through, I also read about nonviolence. First of all it was a personal choice; I choose it for myself, because I cannot react in violence anyway, because personally I cannot kill somebody.

Before, I was not pro-violence, I was not pro-peace, I was just desperate. And when this happened, it removed me; it made me think deeply about — I want a reason to open my eyes in the morning. So how can I deal with this? Because I believe that even the people who support violence are doing this to deal with the anger, and by showing it to the other side through violent behavior. But I cannot do it, so what shall I do? And then I thought, killing somebody, it’s not returning back my brother. Causing the same pain that I have to somebody else is not making my pain more easy.

And politically, supporting violence is not leading my people to independence. It’s not removing the occupation. People have been reacting with violence, and we are losing, especially the Palestinians. Because the whole world now starts looking at the case as there are these extreme Palestinians and they are killing. It’s an injustice to judge a whole people under occupation in this way, so what shall I do to change?

I got involved after my mother; she was the first one to get involved. What happened to me at that meeting when I met the Israeli bereaved families for the first time, and I saw those people who are talking about our right as Palestinians to live in justice and in dignity, in our own independence, with all of the high price that they paid — it touched me, and I feel I depend on them, I’m part of them, because we have the same pain, we are just human.

Rex: What work are you personally involved in?

Damelin: I’m very much involved in the schools; for me that is the most rewarding work. David was a student, doing his master’s in the philosophy of education. In many ways it’s kind of commemorating who he was. I spend a lot of time in classrooms; over the course of 2005, the Parents Circle did more than 1,000 classroom dialogues in Israel and Palestine. So that is a huge amount of students. We have a group of about 50 members who do these classroom dialogues, and that is a main part of the work we’re doing.

I’m also part of a project to create a television series on the second channel in Israel. It’s a drama series, a fiction drama of 10 episodes, and it will be in Hebrew and Arabic on prime time. It will interweave some of the stories from people from the Parents Circle, but mainly the audience will watch it like anything else you’d watch on TV. There’s no peace message, just the narrative of two families, which obviously would give a greater understanding for both sides, just humanize things a little. And then at the end we’ll show a making-of, and then people will recognize that much of what they’ve seen is true.

Awwad: I talk to many schools as one of the Palestinian members who are active; I talk to universities, I talk to people on both sides. I talk to people who are fighting; I talk to the army. I talk to many people about this movement, about the Forum and about nonviolence.

Many people, when you say peace, they despair. They don’t know that there is a difference between peace and nonviolence. Peace is the end, peace is agreement, peace is the life. But nonviolence is the way to live. It’s the way that could lead you to life. Nonviolence is not a hope, like peace; nonviolence is a mission and a duty.

I used to talk to angry people from both sides. They are angry, because this is the way that they deal with fear and pain. Then when I talk to them, hear their pain, their history, their different experience, their behavior today and the future, I wonder where are we leading ourselves by being so angry, so upset, and violent. As a person who has suffered a lot I can touch them, I can reach them. To show the people how to use the pain, not just how to deal with it.

It doesn’t mean that everything will be OK. It doesn’t mean that the violence will stop and the occupation will be removed tomorrow. But to finish we have to start, and how we start, this is the question: to allow the people to control the reaction, to have this connection between the feeling and the mind, and to get this out through a nonviolent behavior, through a human behavior that will allow the other side to understand your rights, and which will allow you to understand there is hope and there is somebody on the other side who understands you.

Rex: What response do you get?

Awwad: In Israel, especially the students tell me that they have never met a Palestinian before. It’s not surprising, because they see the Palestinian by being in the army reserve, or they see the Palestinian by being in the settlements, and they don’t have any contact with Palestinians. They see the Palestinian in the media holding a gun, and they don’t know what it means to live in a refugee camp.

They ask me, well, if there are many people like you, as you say, where are they? We don’t see them. Yes, they don’t see them, because the Palestinian life is so different from the Israeli life. Palestinians are not demonstrating for the peace, like what is happening in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv, but on the other hand they are not doing anything against the peace either.

Nobody realizes that until we meet them. And sometimes they react in another way. Sometimes they don’t want to hear me – I mean, part of them doesn’t want to accept me. But I hold myself there, and keep talking to them, and at last – it’s happened to me many times – at last they come to me and they shake my hand, and they say, you helped us to open our eyes, and to open our minds, because we never thought that there is a human on the other side.

So the Palestinian has to be convinced that nonviolence could lead you to peace, could lead you to independence, but nonviolence is a duty. Even if you’ve been controlled by the occupation, this is a successful way to control your feelings and decide for yourself how to act. When you react with violence, the occupation has an excuse to use this reaction against you.

It’s complicated, you know. It’s huge.

I have a friend; now he wants to give up fighting. When you see the people touched by you, by this message, you feel that you are changing things.

It’s a process; it takes time. We need the political level also; we cannot do it alone. There’s the human level and the political level, but we cannot reach the political level without helping the people understand the other side.

Rex: How do you cope with the problem that’s common to many peace workers, the accusation that you’re betraying “your” side and “giving aid and comfort to the enemy”?

Damelin: Actually that’s very much in the minority. We haven’t come across this very much, and when we do it isn’t from Israel or Palestine, it’s from radical right-wingers in America.

Ali has standing in his community; I mean, somebody who’s been to jail for four years, who’s been shot by a settler and lost his brother can hardly be suspected of being a collaborator.

Of course I’ve had some remarks, I can’t say that I haven’t. But as bereaved parents and families, we’ve paid a high price to say what we say, and generally there is a sense of respect, in Israel and in Palestine, for both of us.

But you do get kooks, and I guess wherever you do work, whatever country, there’s always some extreme people who are frightened by this work, because we shake up their belief system.

Rex: The Parents Circle’s work is very much of a particular time and place, but does it have any lessons for the rest of the world?

Awwad: Sure. I believe that all of us are involved in this circle of our humanity. I believe that our conflict has been used by many other people to kill other people, not just Israelis or Palestinians. And I believe that when I help by also solving another conflict, another hatred here, there, everywhere, it pushes my case to be solved more. Because when I solve your problem you start to care about mine.

And the other thing is, I believe that everybody has a message in his life. It doesn’t matter who you are. It doesn’t matter if you are Palestinian or Israeli or Egyptian or Christian or Muslim or Jewish; you are part of this world. So what are you doing, and how are you doing that? How are you connecting to this identity, or nationality, or religion?

It doesn’t mean I will become an Israeli or a Christian or a Jew; people keep their identity and their religion. But there is another thing more holy than everything, which is their humanity. So if we put this power and this movement and this cycle around, we can involve everybody to help and support us by supporting themselves.

Damelin: We were at a conference on restorative justice in Milwaukee, with professor Mark Umbreit; he’s worked on Death Row introducing families of victims to murderers or perpetrators of the crime. The mother of Amy Biehl, the Fulbright student killed in Soweto, was at the conference together with one of the men who had killed her daughter. And in September we were here for the September 11 five-year commemoration in New York.

So I met with many people from all over the world who have been the victims of terror, or who have created organizations for reconciliation. From that point of view it’s been very enlightening — we’re not just an island on our own. I think what’s interesting is that we have a very profound effect on people, mainly because it’s a Palestinian and an Israeli talking with one voice.

I was in San Francisco in September — a hip-hop artist named Michael Franti invited us to come and talk in Golden Gate Park at the Power to the Peaceful festival; there were something like 60,000 people there.

I have to tell you that when we arrived there and I saw all these amazing colors and dresses and outfits and people, I was quite astounded, because I thought that I had seen it all. But the fact is that there’s a sense of acceptance there; I think if I were wearing a carrot coming out of my head, that wouldn’t have created too much noise.

It’s not music that I understand, but I can tell you that when I did stand on the stage and I started to hear the words and understand them, I started to realize that this is the most incredible protest music. And I felt all the music coming through my legs.

I was there with a partner called Nadwa, and I said, these people are never going to listen to us. But Michael Franti stood up and told everybody to sit down and told them who we were, and 60,000 people sat down on the grass and listened to us for 15 to 20 minutes, which was amazing, because they were all fired up.

And then I walked around, and I saw a lot of hate posters – kill Bush, destroy Rumsfeld, assassinate what’s-her-name, Condoleezza Rice. And that really upset me, because that’s the same language, just the other side of the coin. You know, the things they’re supposed to be anti-. If you’re a peace group, that’s not the rhetoric you should be using. But that’s just my personal opinion.

Awwad: I want to say that it’s not our destiny to keep dying violently, and if we cannot solve this conflict, the world has more power than us. How many people have to die for the rest of the world to wake up and help us?

I think the behavior of the world is going in a crazy direction, which will cost everybody in this world an even higher price. We have to stop it or we will be sorry after a few years.

The other thing is it’s very easy to be right; everybody wants to be right. It’s very hard to be honest. So people prefer to be right, they prefer to be a victim; when you feel you you’re a victim you’re giving an excuse for your behavior against the other side. On the other hand, everybody wants to see the other side as a devil, to excuse their own behavior against him, because if I see him as a human, there is a payment, there is a price, and nobody wants to pay the price.

What I’m asking from everybody, not just in Palestine and Israel, is just not to be stuck by those feelings and those thoughts. Being human doesn’t mean to feel sorry for the other person; I don’t want people to feel sorry for me. It means understanding what the people need to live as humans by supporting them.

Robi Damelin: “There’ve been so many peace agreements, and very little person-to-person, people-to-people work on the ground. This is where it’s very important, what we’re doing.”

Israeli and Palestinian kids, members of the Bereaved Families Forum, at a conference in Italy.

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Monday, March 19, 2007

Furthering Social Change


Perhaps like you, many people knew about the Rex Foundation from attending Grateful Dead Rex benefit concerts. As they danced to the music with their community of friends, they were also playing a part in helping others. There was an unspoken understanding that Rex provided a way to extend to others the good will and largesse of the entire Grateful Dead community.

In 2001, to launch its renewal in the absence of Grateful Dead benefit concerts, the Rex Foundation began to raise its grant making funds in a new way that involved those very elements of its legacy – music, connection, fun, creativity and community spirit – which hold us together. Along the way, we’ve been asked some very good questions about Rex, including,

• Why do we make grants that address so many different types of issues?
• What are our ideas about social change and how are we helping to support such change?
• How do we further human rights?

We hope the words that follow provide some answers, are helpful and thought-provoking, and inspire you to be part of the Rex Foundation Community for many years to come.

The Rex Mission, formulated in the 1980’s, continues to be our basic guide: “to help secure a healthy environment, promote individuality in the arts, provide support to critical and necessary social services, assist others less fortunate than ourselves, protect the rights of indigenous people and ensure their cultural survival, build a stronger community, and educate children and adults everywhere.”

In May 2003, at a Rex Foundation board retreat, we defined “Being an impetus for social change” as one of our long-term direction-setting goals, toward which we would direct our resources and efforts.

"The Rex Foundation views social change as the gathering of momentum to realize globally the conditions under which all societies operate with principles and values that embrace the right of every human being to experience equity, justice and the pursuit of happiness.”

Towards Social Change

Grassroots activity is vital to social change because its very nature embodies the engagement of individuals at a primary level, to create movement. The often-used quote of Margaret Mead speaks to this: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.® Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” When we examine the programs that the Rex Foundation has supported over the last 22 years, it has usually been the passion and commitment of one or a few people that has enabled the programs to begin, take hold and flourish. The results have often been real shifts to behaviors and conditions that support social change. Many examples can be found in the write-ups of our beneficiaries found on this website.

In its grant making, the Rex Foundation has emphasized grassroots programs which often fall under the radar of mainstream funding entities. With this approach, the very programs we believe are vital to social change are supported. By funding a wide spectrum, we help encourage the conditions for a broad social movement in support of biospherical and human rights, as those spelled out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Such a movement would demonstrate the power of grassroots community, service and the arts.

Buckminster Fuller stated in the early 1980’s that we could now solve all the problems of hunger and need across the world because we had the available resources and technology; all that we needed was the political will. The challenge we face today is how to foster the political will to bring about social, economic and political equity. The current social environment is severely oppressed because of the seemingly perpetual “war on terror” that spreads fear and a sense of doom. The antidote to such oppression is to rekindle hope, optimism and a sense of community connection. In this way, more and more people are likely to engage in vital civic and community activities, such as voting, participating in local government, neighborhood associations, and social action efforts, to help generate and “be”, as Ghandi suggested, “the change they want”.

In addition to our direct grant giving, the Rex Foundation is working in several ways to foster the community connections described above:

• The presentation of benefit concerts across the country, which we call Black Tie-Dye Balls. These bring together local communities around music, a joyful ambience and connections to local philanthropy. The enthusiasm is palpable. And, we experience on-going connections with all of the participants, from those attending, to local in-kind contributors, the musicians, and the beneficiaries.

• The publication of newsletters and annual reports which present perspectives on the issues described above. The recent Perspectives on Being Human provides viewpoints on the meaning of the “human rights framework” ­ – seeing action across a broad spectrum of areas, such as environmental rights, civil rights, women’s rights, and social and economic justice, as being unified and amplified by the common goal to further human rights for all.

• In April 2006 we introduced new website features called Food for Thought, Musicians Spotlight and Ripple Effects, providing more in-depth information about Rex beneficiary programs, the Rex musician community, and the results of our joint efforts.

• We have launched this Rex Foundation blog to generate more connections by encouraging online discussion of the Food for Thought topics, hopefully raising awareness about these issues of social change and how to participate in addressing them.

• We are building on what was presented in Perspectives on Being Human in a way that fosters the creative arts while also supporting excellent non-profit programs. We have commissioned three Bay Area non-profit organizations that use drama, movement and spoken word in their work with youth, to create a dramatization about human rights, called The World As It Could Be – A Declaration of Human Rights. The dramatization was presented at a convening at the Presidio in San Francisco on December 7th and at Balboa High School in San Francisco on December 8th. We will continue to build on this work during 2007.

In these ways, together, as participants in the Rex Foundation community, we are fostering the power of community, service and the arts to help generate positive social change toward health, happiness and prosperity for all.


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Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Spare Change for Social Change & Save 12-01-06

Spare Change for Social Change & Save 12-01-06

We launched the Rex Community Caravan to be our virtual vehicle for philanthropy, where each of us can help generate positive social change with contributions that we might otherwise consider spare change over the course of a year, such as $5.00 is a penny a day, $36.00 is 10 cents a day, or $50 is 14 cents a day.

To demonstrate the power of spare change to generate social change, Rex is initiating a

Call for Change
to raise $50,000 over the next five months. All dollars raised via our Rex Community Caravan between October 3, 2006 and March 2, 2007 will be distributed as grants. Contributors can tell us if they want donations to go towards one of Rex's main areas of funding – healthy environment, individuality in the arts, social & economic justice, preservation of indigenous cultures, strong community and the education of children and adults.

To see what you can help accomplish, go to the Rex Community Caravan and make a donation on-line or download the Caravan form to fax or mail. To specify a grant area, enter one of the six bolded titles noted above. Forward this web address to others you want to bring on board the Rex Community Caravan to help generate social change with their spare change.

Each month, we’ll announce the Caravan totals and include stories about the kinds of programs your contributions support, like the one about NextCourse.

Get on board the Rex Community Caravan and watch your spare change generate social change. Check out Fostering the Power of Community, Service and the Arts for more about what we mean by social change and the work of the Rex Foundation towards this.

And, save Friday, December 1, 2006 for Vibes For Peace

at the Warfield Theater, San Francisco.

Thanks for all your support.

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Friday, August 11, 2006

Tiny Group, Huge Impact

North Bay’s New Economy Working Solutions (NEWS) helps working families, by getting often-hostile factions to form coalitions and work together

by Mary Eisenhart

"Winning the Community Benefits Agreement from the SMART train transit district has really emboldened all of us. All of these groups have been working in these trenches for years. None of us would have been able to accomplish this alone, but having put together this very coherent entity — we’re on the map now. The policy-makers know us.” – Ben Boyce, NEWS

The old track still runs through downtown San Rafael

Getting the voters to pay for transit projects is often a hard sell. This November, when the voters in Sonoma and Marin Counties, north of San Francisco, go to the polls to decide whether to charge themselves a half-cent of additional sales tax to pay for the Sonoma Marin Area Rapid Transit (SMART) train, the measure they’re considering will enjoy unusually broad community support. Even from groups who are normally a little nervous about being in the same room with each other.

Say, major developers, workers’ rights advocates, union leaders, and environmentalists.

This is no accident. Because these groups and other local stakeholders figured out how to put aside their differences and work together on common goals, the transit plan incorporates a number of community-driven features that probably wouldn’t have come up otherwise.

Instrumental in building this consensus was Santa Rosa based New Economy Working Solutions (NEWS), a Rex grantee in 2003 and again in 2006. NEWS helped put together the Accountable Development Coalition of Sonoma County, which hammered out the agreements with the transit district in return for supporting the ballot measure.

“The SMART board’s political motive was to get all of these groups lined up endorsing the rail tax, which will be on the ballot in November,” says Ben Boyce, coordinator of NEWS' Living Wage Coalition. ”As a result of our involvement, the Santa Rosa SMART train station project is using union labor; it is using green building materials and techniques, and there’s going to be a very large affordable housing component, as well as a living wage requirement for commercial properties within that district. It’s like hitting the trifecta.”

Members of the Living Wage Coalition stand up
at a rally for the United Farm Workers

From Rex’s standpoint, as board member John Leopold explains (see sidebar: Rex Perspective), helping fund NEWS’s SMART train effort in 2006 was a sort of trifecta of its own. Rex originally gave a grant to NEWS in 2003 after Leopold, who’d been involved in similar efforts in Silicon Valley, heard about the Living Wage Coalition project. Since those days NEWS has racked up impressive achievements in the region, from helping pass living-wage ordinances in a growing number of cities to organizing community input in development projects. Most remarkable was its ability to bring disparate groups into coalitions around common interests. All in all, supporting NEWS allowed Rex to support multiple efforts with a single grant.

NEWS is a volunteer-based community organization with several hundred members. Founder Marty Bennett, a longtime labor activist and a history professor at Santa Rosa Junior College, and Boyce, a graduate of Sonoma State University’s master’s program in public policy studies, are the core staff. While Boyce is busy with alliance building, community organizing, and activism, Bennett’s responsible for research operations, which have so far resulted in the publication of three papers and numerous articles on subjects related to the regional economy.

A growing concern is that the North Bay’s economic growth is increasingly lopsided — a so-called “hourglass economy,” with growth in very high-paying jobs and very low-paying jobs, a vanishing middle class, and a general lack of economic sustainability. Addressing these issues led local groups from lobbying for living wage ordinances to the idea of “accountable development”: the notion that, if public funds are going to be used to fund or subsidize a project, it must truly benefit the entire community.

As early as 2000, Marty Bennett invoked the principle of accountable development in connection with the building of the Petaluma Sheraton, a nice hotel on a municipal marina for which the city was lending the developer millions in taxpayer redevelopment money. Bennett successfully persuaded the city council that in return for this largesse, the hotel jobs would pay living wage (so, after all, the workers wouldn’t be forced to get health care from the public sector at taxpayer expense), and the hotel would not oppose its employees’ efforts to organize. “As a result of that, we have a union hotel in Petaluma,” says Boyce.

Petaluma Sheraton worker

We were recently able to speak with Boyce about NEWS’s ongoing work, and in particular the real-life challenges and rewards of coalition-building.

Rex: For the benefit of those who are new to these issues, could you explain a bit about your work, and why it should concern everyone?

NEWS: We’re trying to challenge the assumptions that are condemning about a quarter of the population to low-wage jobs that typically don’t pay health-care benefits, that are very unstable, highly insecure, and don’t actually pay people’s bills. So people have to work two and three jobs and engage in lots of underground economic activity to make up the shortfall.

The NEWS director, Marty Bennett, has made it his mission to awaken policymakers and the citizenry to the growing crisis of the working poor — so they can make appropriate policy solutions for the problems generated by low-road economic development, which has been going on since the ’80s. We’re setting up demonstration projects, and showing people: “This is an alternative. This is what it could look like.”

NEWS founder Marty Bennett, speaking at the
Limits of Prosperity conference in 2005

Different models of economic development place different emphasis on the role of labor and the function of government in relationship to the role of public policy in regulating job markets. The currently dominant philosophy that’s coming out of Wall Street and out of the neoconservative movement is what we call the low-road economic strategy, or free-market fundamentalism, which basically regards labor as a cost center.

What we’re trying to do, at NEWS and with the Living Wage Coalition, is reframe the discussion and introduce people to what we call a high-road, sustainable economic development model, one that looks at labor as an investment; one that seeks public policy that provides incentives for companies and employers to create more good full-time jobs with health benefits, jobs that pay a self-sufficiency wage or a living wage.

We’re establishing a metric other than the minimum wage in order to talk about wages. As the comedian Chris Rock says, minimum wage means “If we could pay you less, we would.” That should not be the standard by which wages are measured. A more adequate standard is the self-sufficiency wage — what it takes to pay for food, gas, rent, basic expenses. That’s the living wage.

From a moral standpoint, paying a living wage is the right thing to do. We as a society have chosen to value work as a way of demonstrating commitment, by showing up and doing the work. There’s something morally odd about a situation in which people make that socially positive gesture, but it doesn’t pay off in terms of being able to support their family. This is not inevitable; this is not because it was decreed by the invisible hand of The Market, like a commandment from God; it’s the result of deliberate corporate decisions, which are then reinforced into the legal structure by their bought-and-paid political functionaries. The crisis of the working poor is a socio-economic phenomenon that we have the capacity to address through public policy.

In our view, the purpose of public policy is to set some kind of norms so it doesn’t become this kind of social Darwinist race to the bottom — particularly since the spread of this low-wage economy is actually reducing our total economic growth. The bottom end of the wage scale has been pretty much stagnant for decades, and increasingly that end of the population is not able to participate in wealth creation: they can’t save; they don’t have the money to spend on the plethora of consumer goods being produced.

Ben Boyce of NEWS addresses the Sonoma City Council

In areas where they’ve passed living wage or minimum wage laws, there’s a measurable uptick in local business activity because of increased disposable income for working people. We support creating this virtuous cycle of economic activity by raising the wage floor, as contrasted to creating a vicious cycle of working poverty through low-road wage and benefit policies.

Rex: There’s a strong presence of churches and religious groups in your coalitions, which some might find surprising.

NEWS: Part of that is the result of a conscious effort on our part, as there’s been a growing realization nationally that we need to bring back into the fold the progressive elements of the religious community.

The high-water mark of the progressive movement in this country was the civil rights era, when there was a deep involvement of the religious community. A number of things — not least of which was a sort of residual hostility on the part of a lot of secular activists toward religious expression — drove out of the movement what should be a natural ally.

This left the field open to the right, which has been vigorous in recruiting the evangelicals and the various conservative religious movements, even to causes that are contrary to their own constituents’ economic interests. So we’re making a deliberate effort to welcome and engage with the faith community.

Also, for us it’s a natural way to help create community support for low-wage workers, who in this area are mostly Latino and Catholic. One of the greatest sources of support for worker organizing we’ve had from the beginning has come from these Catholic social justice groups.

We’re currently supporting the drive to organize the health workers at Memorial Hospital in Santa Rosa. Many of these workers are Latinos, and some of them are parishioners at my church, St. Leo’s. St. Leo’s has also served as base for a local organizing drive for nursing home workers at the Sonoma Valley Health Center in Sonoma, and it gives these workers a great deal of comfort to know that the people who go to the same church they do and share their values are supporting them in their struggle to get representation.

Rally in support of union organizing efforts at Memorial Hospital
in Santa Rosa. Photo: Dogzen Arts

A lot of my colleagues who are what I call secular fundamentalists have this belief that they are oppressed if they have to hear religious language. What I explain to them is that they’re defining a public square in which the only way religious allies can enter is if they shed their religion when they walk in. Now, that’s not going to work, when in fact their primary motivation for being involved is that Moses and Jesus said that you need to help the poor. It’s not that you have to believe it yourself; it’s that you have to allow a space for them to express their engagement in the cause in a way that works for them.

Rex: How did the Accountable Development Coalition emerge?

NEWS: Over the last few years, the living wage movement has evolved to a broader agenda of accountable development: that public money should not be used to subsidize low-wage employment that benefits the owners of the business but has a deleterious effect on the rest of society by offloading their costs, in terms of the low wages and lack of health care benefits.

The thing about the use of public money is that you, we, as a citizen’s group, have standing to come before councils, boards and commissions and demand an accounting. There has to be some accountability for how this money is used. Literally tens of billions of dollars are given away every year under these redevelopment grants, and it’s typically a very shadowy, opaque process.

Two years ago, we joined forces with the North Bay Labor Council, the building trades, housing advocacy groups, environmental groups and others to form the Accountable Development Coalition of Sonoma County, looking at a broader picture of a sustainable and equitable economic development.

We wanted to find a project where we could interject ourselves early on and make a difference, because what normally happens is that people don’t get wind of things until they’re practically a done deal; by the time it’s been endorsed by the planning commission and approved by the city council, it’s too late. And people feel frustrated because their government is not responsive.

There was a $100 million project proposed for downtown Santa Rosa, revitalizing the downtown — the anchor depot for the SMART train. A couple members of our coalition were on the SMART train campaign committee, and they said, this is a project where we should get involved.

The old can become the new

So we got in early on. We lobbied the public officials involved, we held a number of forums and public events to educate people. As a result of close to a year and a half of lobbying work, public education, op-ed writing and lots of groundwork, our group was able to produce an excellent Community Benefits Agreement, or CBA.

For us it’s been very encouraging. It’s proof that this kind of coalition-building works.

Rex: And without that broad network of contacts, you wouldn’t have had allies on the SMART board giving you the heads-up.

NEWS: Exactly. I think it’s really emboldened all of us. All of these groups have been working in these trenches for years — the housing groups have been doing it, the Sierra Club and the environmental groups. None of us would have been able to accomplish this alone, but having put together this very coherent entity — we’re on the map now. The policy-makers know us.

We’re very disciplined; we all walk in, half a dozen of us, we’ll get our speaker cards all in a row, we’ll have caucused with each other so we don’t just get up there and rant about the same thing; each of us is touching on a different point. So they know that these guys mean business. We have material to give them; we’ll be lobbying them. We’ve become hard to escape (laughs) and that’s our goal.

Rex: What are the biggest challenges you face going forward?

NEWS: Currently we’re working to pass a living wage ordinance in Petaluma, which is going to mean negotiating with some of the council conservatives. That’s a difficult process, but I actually think we’re succeeding with that.

Our ultimate goal with that is to pass a countywide living wage ordinance; our biggest opposition in that comes from the Chambers of Commerce, who, at least on the national and state levels, if not the local levels, are dominated by free-market fundamentalists who are ideologically opposed to intervention in labor markets.

In terms of our accountable development work, it’s a constant challenge to hold the coalition together.

One of the places it’s easy for the coalition to break apart is between labor and the environmentalists. The people in the building council — they want to see construction going on. And there are certain elements in the environmental movement who, if it involves pouring concrete, they’re “agin’” it. And so our environmental allies kind of have to keep a wing of their own constituency in check.

What we’re trying to do is move away from this idea of environmentalism as preservationism, toward an idea that environmentalism is more of a strategy that involves what we call smart growth. As long as the population’s growing, there’s going to be growth; the real issue is if it’s going to be intelligently designed and economically viable.

We’re working as a coalition to try to encourage that city-center, infill kind of development, concentrating development along the 101 corridor. So we have our internal work of selling parts of the environmental community on this vision, as opposed to stopping everything they can, a strategy that has historically diminished their power. If people’s only options are unreasonable people who will oppose any project, no matter how socially valuable, or the right-wing guys who will approve it, you’re forcing people into their camp.

We need to provide an intelligent alternative that involves not just approving anything that comes along but looking at whether it meets certain criteria. We try to establish those criteria and make it part of the public conversation. I think that’s a real challenge for us.

Our internal meetings can be pretty fierce. But we try to iron it out behind the scenes so that when we do step forward publicly we’re speaking with a united voice.

Rex: How do you manage to get so much done with so little?

NEWS: Marty Bennett is a driven man. (laughs) He’s 24/7 and brings me along in tow. We have quite a bit of volunteer help; a number of members of the coalition put time and energy into helping us with our lobbying projects or helping us with our materials.

To really get up to speed we need to hire a Spanish-speaking organizer; that’s the missing piece for us organizationally. So much of our work in support of the low-wage worker organizing is with the Latino immigrant community, and it would be really good if we could get someone who’s bilingual and bicultural. I’m not that person.

And at some point we’d like to get a development director, or a consultant that we could hire, because it’s very time-consuming. Marty puts a lot of time into it and I help him, but the funding thing is a whole world in itself, and personally I prefer putting my energy into the organizing part rather than the fundraising.

“In my personal experience, I have found that coalitions of interests working together to create community change make the most difference,” says board member John Leopold, who first brought NEWS to the Rex Foundation’s attention several years ago.

John had worked on living-wage issues with a group called Working Partnerships in Silicon Valley, and seen for himself the results that could be achieved when local community groups figured out common goals and worked together. Thus he was intrigued by the fledgling organization’s Living Wage Coalition of Sonoma project. NEWS was achieving remarkable results with very little — and, like many small grassroots groups in outlying areas, it faced a very uncertain future, to the point where a well-timed small grant from Rex could make the difference between surviving and not surviving.

“They were having a hard time getting the attention of funders,” John recalls, “because Sonoma County isn’t considered a major urban area; it wasn’t considered on the front line of the effort to change the way local government treated its workers, or the people it contracts with, their workers, or environmental concerns. But to me they were doing very interesting work. That was a good match with Rex, because so much of what we’ve funded in the past is activity that’s going to benefit many people, where our money can make a big difference, and maybe they haven’t attracted mainstream funding. I thought it was an excellent marriage of interests to create positive change for the community.”

At John’s suggestion, Rex made a grant to the Living Wage Coalition in 2003. Three years later, he says, NEWS’ success in putting together the Accountable Development Coalition and in winning major community benefits as part of the SMART train development were a perfect fit for more Rex support on several fronts. “What impressed me was that they were leveraging the work we had already funded,” he explains. ”They were bringing together the coalitions they had formed around the living wage campaign in Sonoma County to create a larger coalition around community benefits with this SMART train station: Environmental issues, human rights issues, worker rights issues, and transportation issues. Within the SMART train activity were issues we’d supported individually in the past, and here it was all wrapped together.”

The coalition NEWS has helped spearhead has not only produced some short-term victories for the community, says John; the entire process has served as a model for future collaborations. He says, “There are several benefits to the local area: the actual construction and jobs that are created; the environmentally friendly way it’s going to be created, which has a long-term community impact; the fact that everybody who works there is going to get paid a livable wage, that has ripples. But it also becomes an important activity for the community to say: These are the values we care about as a community. So when it’s building the next office park, the next highway or the next school, these are issues that have been identified and supported by a broad base in the community. The ripple effects are that it will affect other projects in the area that will hopefully impact lots of different people, outside the ones directly impacted by just this one train station.

“One of the interesting things that could potentially flow from this is that they’ve brought more people into the coalition around these issues. Once you’ve got a county supervisor who’s worked with this coalition on these various issues, when you come to them and say, now we’d like you to support a living wage initiative at the county level, they’ve already been won over. They’ve already supported that kind of activity, and that will make it a lot easier to leverage this kind of work to the next level of NEWS’s community work.

“To me, people working together is always more powerful than people working separately. When you’ve got, for example, the building trades and the environmentalists and the progressive students working together, you’ll be able to do a lot more things once people have the experience of working together. You’ll find a lot of common goals.”

Suggested Reading

Ben Boyce Recommends:

The Left Hand of God: Taking Our Country Back From the Religious Right, By Rabbi Michael Lerner

A look at the rift between the political left and the faith-based world, and how it might be mended.

The Great American Jobs Scam. By Greg LeRoy

An exposé of how vast sums of public money are handed out to developers in the name of jobs creation and other public benefits, and how little public benefit actually results.

“Maximum Support for Raising the Minimum”

Pew Research Center report on increasing bipartisan support for raising the minimum wage.

“Minimum Wage Lowest in 50 Years”

The federal minimum wage hasn’t been raised for nine years, a period in which Congress voted itself pay raises totaling close to $35,000 a year.

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