April 26, 2015

It Takes A Village To Blow One Up

West, Texas was best known as a place to grab something from the Czech Bakery while driving between Austin and the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. Now, West is best known as the latest in a long line of American industrial disasters reprehensible for their utter preventability.

The explosion at the fertilizer plant comes from failure of the local, state, and federals governments and the plant owners and operators to satisfy the needs of worker safety, community safety, and national security. OSHA has not inspected the plant since 1985. Schools and homes were allowed to be built very near the plant. The plant had 1,350 times the amount of ammonium nitrate at which Department of Homeland Security regulation is triggered. We know the plant had so much ammonium nitrate, because paperwork indicating such was filed with with a Texas regulatory entity. The mishmash of regulators is not required to share information. Unlike the inability of first responders to communicate with each other because of technical incompatibilities, government regulators don’t interact with each other. Given the large variety of regulating agencies, better intercommunication is needed.

A tangle of agencies regulates plants like the one in West. Different agencies were assigned oversight for different chemicals there. Among the federal agencies responsible were the E.P.A., Homeland Security, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. State agencies include the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the state chemist’s office and the state health services department.

Ammonium nitrate is a national security concern because in nefarious hands it can cause this:


Terrorism isn’t the only reason for concern about the large amount of such an explosive chemical:

The explosion was so powerful it leveled homes and left a crater 93 feet wide and 10 feet deep. Judging by the size of the crater and the extent of the damage — pieces of twisted metal landed in distant pastures, and ceiling tiles and lights shook loose in buildings two miles away — the explosion was more powerful than the Oklahoma City bombing, experts said.

Texas markets its lax regulations as a reason for businesses to relocate:

Loose regulations” in Texas may be a nice pitch for out-of-state business, however, in 2010 the state accounted for 10% of all workplace-related fatalities in the country. In 2011, Texas had the second-highest number of fatality investigations from OSHA (California was first), in 2010, Texas led the nation in Latino worker fatalities.

The marvelous economic tales spun about Texas even beguile those who should know better like a writer for Texas Monthly. Jack Ohman and the editors of the Sacramento Bee, however, were not beguiled:


The owners and operators of the plant seem to have long thought they could pick and choose what few regulations with which they were supposed to comply would apply to them. Among other problems, the company received a citation for construction of 6,000 gallon ammonia tanks without a permit, did not have a sufficient risk management plan, and had no signs or illegible signs on many storage tanks, many of which did not meet safety standards.

The Czech connection in West remains strong; the Czech Republic may provide nearly $200,000 to aid recovery. That’s very helpful and kind; it’s greatly appreciated. I wonder, though, if Bangladesh provides something even better, a guide on how to handle preventable disasters — arrest the owners.

How many other extremely dangerous plants and chemical storage facilities continue to operate in similar fashion with such disregard for the workers, the community, and national security?

– Justin Gillenwater

Question of the Week: Daylight “Losings” Time

Should we get rid of Daylight Savings/Losings Time?

— Gautam Dutta

Penn Loh: Alternatives to Walmart?

Editor’s Note: The below is a reposting of “Alternatives to Walmart?” from our friend Penn Loh. Read more of his work at pennloh.wordpress.com.

walmart map

Having harvested rural and suburban retail markets, Walmart is now ploughing new ground in cities with their smaller urban groceries. From Los Angeles to Chicago and now in Boston, communities are debating over Walmart. On the one hand, residents of economically struggling neighborhoods (often also food deserts) want jobs and access to affordable groceries. On the other, Walmart has become identified with everything that’s wrong with the global economy: workers exploited, environment trashed, local businesses destroyed, and governments paid off.

Walmart’s entry into cities raises vexing questions for community revitalization and development. If you think Walmart will eventually come, then how do you fight for a better deal for workers and the community? If you just say no, then what are other development possibilities? This latter question is the one that a community-university partnership recently started exploring. This article shares some of the learning from the spring 2012 Practical Visionaries Workshop, which brought together 20 organizers from Boston area community groups and graduate students from the Tufts Department of Urban & Environmental Policy and Planning.

We took on this bigger question because it’s the one that rarely gets asked in the heat of battle. But it is the question that must be addressed if, in the longer term, we are to move towards a more just and sustainable economy. Many of the community partners were equivocal about waging intensive campaigns against Walmart, though some are involved in the ChangeWalmartMA coalition. If Walmart ultimately prevails, then the best prospect after several years of struggle would be slightly higher wages and perhaps a package of other community and environmental benefits. If Walmart is defeated, then the community is still left no better off than it was before. Worse yet, if you successfully keep Walmart out of one location, it still may end up in the neighborhood next door. (Though Walmart recently abandoned plans for stores in Somerville and Watertown, it still is looking for sites in Greater Boston.)

Thus, we felt that it was time to begin answering the question of alternatives to Walmart. Unfortunately, despite best efforts, there are not many examples of community economic development that have significantly reversed the tide against lower income communities. What are touted as best cases are often not much different from a Walmart or other big box store: mixed-use commercial developments with an anchor tenant, often a national chain (think Stop and Shop or Target). Some of these developments have been vital additions to communities. But are they creating good jobs? Are they generating shared wealth that recirculates locally? Are they leading to transformation of an unjust and unsustainable global economy?

Envisioning a New Community Economy

As we began exploring these questions, we found that we lacked the language to even talk about other models. In part, this difficulty stems from the dominance of free-market ideology (often called neo-liberalism outside the US). In part, we had trouble because we have put our own community organizing work into a box of civic engagement; we rarely think of local organizing as shaping “the economy”, which we perceive to flow down from the national and global levels.

Therefore, our first step was to better understand the existing (or “old”) economy. By looking at the 60 years since World War II, we started to grasp that there is a relationship between how the economy works (and who it works for) and public policy and politics. What we have today is not inevitable due to technological progress or “natural” market forces.

While we are told in fairy tale style that capitalism has triumphed over all alternatives, we felt the need for new stories about the economy, as we are not all living happily ever after. These new narratives are also frameworks to help us understand the differences and similarities between development models. What makes Walmart better or worse than another national grocery chain, from the perspective of workers, the community, and the global economy? Perhaps one pays better wages and benefits, helping stabilize families and community. But perhaps both still suck profits out of the neighborhood back to corporate headquarters and shareholders.

We found that we are searching for the same things as many others across the globe that some are calling a new economy movement. The Occupy movement helped open up more space to imagine life beyond the current economy. In Latin America, Canada, and Europe, there are already well developed networks and emerging governmental strategies to support the social or solidarity economy – one that doesn’t operate solely for private profit, but based on cooperation, mutual support, equity, and sustainability.

The new economy is not a singular and top-down vision, but a set of diverse but interlinked practices that can sustain us materially and spiritually. The economy is not just what’s sold in the marketplace, but also the gifts that we give, the caring for family and friends, and the food we grow for ourselves. It’s not just about having a job, but a livelihood. It’s not just making more things more cheaply while exhausting our Earth’s resources and causing climate chaos; it’s about bringing economy and ecology into one circle. It’s not just about choosing an alternative lifestyle, but doing what’s necessary to survive and thrive.

Emerging Models

We found inspiration in the many places outside of the US that have been cultivating a new economy. Launched in 1956, Mondragon in Spain has built a network of more than 100 worker-owned cooperatives employing more than 80,000. In Argentina, we learned about the workers who occupied their factories and took them over when the economy collapsed in 2001. In Quebec, we were inspired by the formation of a social economy network in the late 1990s, which with labor union partnership created its own investment fund to support nonprofit and cooperative businesses. A number of South American countries, such as Brazil and Venezuela, have national-level secretariats for the solidarity economy, providing technical assistance and investment funds.

While the movement outside the US may seem light years ahead, we also discovered that the seeds of a new economy are being sown right here at home. Some of these efforts are more recent and consciously about laying the foundations for a new economy. However, some are decades old, even if they don’t yet see themselves as part of a new economy. Here in Massachusetts, we can point to a number of well established worker cooperatives, such as Equal Exchange, a worker owned fair trade coffee company and Red Sun Press. We also have large numbers of socially-owned housing developments, where tenants have significant level of ownerhip control. In Springfield, the Alliance to Develop Power has leveraged tenant ownership of 4 housing developments to build their community economy. Perhaps the best case from Boston is the community land trust established by Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative in 1988, where they took control over a swath of vacant land and have since built several hundred units of affordable housing as part of their “urban village”.

The Evergreen Cooperatives in Cleveland have gained much attention for launching several worker-owned cooperatives serving the City’s universities and hospitals. So far, they have launched a green commercial laundry, solar-installation/weatherization company, and commercial greenhouse producing fresh lettuce. With significant support from City and institutional leaders, this initiative is fashioning itself after Mondragon, aspiring to build a network of 10 cooperatives with 500 worker-owners in the next several years.

Evergreen has inspired a number of similar efforts in cities across the US. We had the opportunity to learn directly from two such initiatives – one from Springfield, Massachusetts and one from the Bronx. In Springfield, the Wellspring project has brought together anchor institutions and community partners with University of Massachusetts and the Center for Popular Economics to plan for launching a food hub and green building business in the next year. The Bronx Cooperative Development Initiative has also been in planning mode for more than a year, with key community groups, a labor union, and MIT CoLab anchoring the process.

Then What?
As we were learning and being inspired, we also drilled down into the specific question of how to envision alternatives to Walmart in the Boston area. A group of five masters students completed a major report, guided by our community partners, entitled “If Not Walmart, Then What? Envisioning a Different Paradigm for Local Economic Development in Roxbury and Somerville”. The first half of this report tells the stories (in popular terms) of the local economy with Walmart and with a new community economy. The second half frames out a systems alternative to Walmart and sketches out the possibility of a food cooperative in Somerville and a community-owned organics repurposing facility in Roxbury.

Perhaps the biggest lightbulb moment for our exploration this spring is that an alternative to Walmart is not simply a different development on the same site. Walmart doesn’t just bring a new store, but a whole global supply chain, with goods produced across the country and world. A different paradigm starts with thinking about the regional economy and what can be produced here. Thus, we started to look not just at where food is sold but where it is grown and produced. We also looked at what happens to energy and waste flows. The possibility of turning organic waste into fertilizer and energy inspired the idea of an organics facility in Roxbury. In short, we needed to look more holistically at the system.

This exploration is only a beginning. As inspired as we are by efforts such as Evergreen, we also have major questions about how these models are coordinated with community organizing, policy change, local democracy, and building community power. In the end, we have even more questions than answers. But we know that there will have to be work on a number of fronts, including:

  • Popular education – the work of redefining the economy has to proliferate to the streets. This is tough work, but community organizers are looking for ways to connect short-term campaigns to long-term vision.
  • Assessing assets – we already have a lot to work with, but it often goes unrecognized and synergies left untapped. Mapping of existing businesses, residents’ skills, and community-controlled institutions will be critical.
  • Demonstration and pilot projects – functioning enterprises, even if not perfect, are important for showing that other economies are possible. They are also fertile learning grounds for how to build our own solidarity economy.
  • Public policy and resources – a new economy will need public support in the form of policies and resources. Policies should start to tilt the playing field towards the new economy while curbing the worst practices of the old economy.
  • Coordination – the new economy can bring together many partners who have not traditionally worked together, including community groups, unions, environmentalists, local businesses, social investors, and anchor institutions.

Look here for future posts related to the new community economy and our partner efforts here in the Boston area.

Trial by Storm

Leaders rise to the occasion.  After Sandy devastated New Jersey and New York, President Obama took precious time off campaigning to make sure that help was on its way.

And that was the right thing to do.  Even New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who had lit into Obama’s record at the Republican convention, had effusive words of praise for our President.

Not coincidentally, Obama has risen in the polls — because voters reward leadership.

Tragedies can bring out both the best and worst in us.  By helping those in need, President Obama has reinvigorated the spirit of sharing and giving.

— Gautam Dutta

Sam Yoon To Lead Council Of Korean Americans

I wanted to share an update on what has been happening since you joined me in our historic campaign for mayor of Boston in 2009.

Several months after the election I made the difficult decision to leave Boston and move to the Washington, D.C. area. Though I loved Boston dearly, I took the opportunity to move closer to my family, but also to lead a national organization advocating for community economic development.

I learned so much about how grassroots community organizations all around our country both thrived and struggled due to the Great Recession. I took their message to our national leaders and even documented them in our own YouTube channel. But by the end of 2011, I was offered a chance to serve in the Obama administration.

Most of you know I was an early and strong supporter of Barack Obama in his historic 2008 race, and I was honored to work for him during most of this year at the Department of Labor in the Employment and Training Administration (ETA) as a senior policy advisor. The time I spent there was both eye-opening and sobering. It is an enormous challenge to prepare a 21st century workforce in a struggling economy with a gridlocked Congress. Yet I saw the good people at ETA march on every day, for American workers, and I salute them.

This brings us to today. I am pleased to let you know through this email that I have recently been hired as the President of a non-profit organization called the Council of Korean Americans (CKA). CKA is a national, non-partisan group of Korean Americans whose mission is to assert a clear, strong voice on matters of importance to our community and to advocate for our full participation in all aspects of American life.

Founded in 2010, CKA fulfills a clear need in the Korean American community, which, like many immigrant and ethnic communities, lacks a national, unified voice. I firmly believe our members and our allies have the talent, energy, and drive to make this happen. I would love for you to be involved.

Check back from time to time at our website. I plan to start a blog and comment on issues of the day from a more personal point of view. I encourage you to sign up for our newsletter and stay in touch with me as I take on this new venture.

That’s my update, in two minutes or less! Thank you for reading, and thank you so much for your friendship over the years.

Please stay in touch, and God bless!

– Sam Yoon

Fantasy Cabinet: Romney Edition

No, no. Not Fantasy Cabaret — Fantasy Cabinet. Yes, I know it’s easy to get confused because the Republicans held their convention in Tampa, America’s strip club capital

What might Romney’s cabinet look like if he’s elected?

President Willard Mitt Romney
Vice President Paul Ryan
Secretary of State David Petraeus
Secretary of Defense Condoleezza Rice
Secretary of Homeland Security Steve King
Attorney General Chris Christie
Secretary of the Treasury Eric Kriss
Secretary of Energy Aubrey McClendon
Secretary of Commerce David Koch
Secretary of Labor Scott Walker
Secretary of Health and Human Services Bobby Jindal
Secretary of Education Rick Santorum
Secretary of Transportation John Thune
Secretary of the Interior Don Blankenship
Secretary of Agriculture Hugh Grant
Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Bob McDonnell
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Joe Walsh
National Security Advisor Cofer Black
Director of the Office of Management and Budget Tim Pawlenty
Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency Michelle Bachmann
Ambassador to the United Nations Christopher Burnham
United States Trade Representative Donald Trump
Drug Control Tzar Rick Scott

What do you think? Leave a comment!

– Justin Gillenwater

Pandas: Good for the Environment, Good for the Economy

Saving the pandas is important not simply because they’re incredibly cute but also because their leavings may help solve global energy problems. That’s right; panda droppings may well contain bacteria extremely efficient in helping to create biofuel.

“Our studies suggest that bacteria species in the panda intestine may be more efficient at breaking down plant materials than termite bacteria and may do so in a way that is better for biofuel manufacturing purposes,” Brown said.

Under certain conditions, the panda poop bacteria can covert 95 percent of plant biomass into simple sugars, Brown estimated. The powerful enzymes in the bacteria speed up chemical reactions, eliminating the need for high heat, harsh acids and high pressures currently used to produce biofuels. Bacteria would also be a more energy-efficient way to turn materials such as switchgrass, corn stalks and wood chips into fuel, Brown said.

Once China expends its supplies of rare earths, panda excrement could become a key component of the Chinese economy. Now if someone can just figure out how to get pandas to make more pandas.

I know, the post’s title says pandas. By the rules of the internet, that means their must be panda pictures or video. Enjoy:

– Justin Gillenwater

Democratic Primary in Texas House District 137

Ed. Note: Asian American Action Fund has made no endorsements in the Texas Democratic Primaries.

Early Voting is well under way here in Texas! The hottest Democratic race, at least in my mind, is the hot race happening in Texas House District 137 on the west side of Houston. This race almost didn’t happen. If not for the efforts of AALDEF in preparing an amicus curae [PDF] for OCA Greater Houston, the Republican-controlled Texas State Legislature may well have prevailed in court, succeeding in their effort to disenfranchise Asian American voters by combining Texas House District 137 with Hubert Vo’s Texas House District 149.

This primary is a four-person race between Joe Madden, Jamaal Smith, Sarah Winkler, and Gene Wu. The winner will face former former non-resident city councilperson M.J. Khan in November’s election, which determine who will succeed Scott Hochberg, whose retirement many are bemoaning.

Turnout at Democratic early voting locations in the district is comparatively fantastic, at least as of numbers from Sunday, May 20 [PDF]. This isn’t a direct indicator of turnout for the district race. Remember, early voters can vote at any location in Harris County; in-precinct voting only occurs on election day. While turnout is comparatively fantastic, in total numbers it light overall. A strong ground game could give this race to anyone, or at least get him or her to a runoff.

Looking at the 30-day campaign finance reports, Gene Wu, a Harris County felony prosecutor, has raised the most, spent the most, and has the most cash on hand. What’s more, Wu has coverage sources the other candidates aren’t reaching such as the society page covering his pending nuptials and in-language media in print, on television, and presumably on radio.

Endorsements are split in the very diverse district [PDF]. Joseph Carlos Madden, the former chief of staff for the excellent State Representative Garnet Coleman has the most endorsements including from the Houston Chronicle and Burnt Orange Report. The Chronicle seemed to endorse Madden because he is fluent in Spanish and the district is majority-Hispanic. Stace Medellin over at Dos Centavos needs more than that in a candidate and is endorsing Jamaal Smith, former executive director of the Harris County Democratic Party, legislative director to State Representative Joe Moreno and advisor to State Senator Rodney Ellis, who has the support of many other names I recognize and trust. I have not seen an endorsement for Sarah Winkler. Gene Wu has received a handful of endorsement including from the Houston Association of Realtors and City Councilperson and former State Representative Melissa Noriega, who received the most votes of any candidate in the 2009 City of Houston elections. And I can happily report he has a new endorser — me.

I wholeheartedly support and endorse Gene Wu for Texas House District 137. In my years of working with him in nonprofit activities, his commitment to his community stands out greatly. Sharpstown, Gulfton, Alief, Westchase, Briarmeadow, and Piney Point would be well-served by such commitment in Austin. With degrees in natural resource management, public policy, and law, work experience in education policy and criminal prosecution, and volunteer work with at-risk youth and low-income adults, Wu is the right choice for Texas House District 137. I’m particularly moved by Wu’s past five years of monthly volunteering with Neighborhood Centers, Inc. and now OCA Greater Houston’s citizenship and immigration fora, which provide assistance to low-income permanent residents wishing to become US citizens. Wu’s on-the-ground experience is sorely needed in Austin and will be of much greater benefit to the people of Texas, especially those inTexas House District 137, than the state capitol political machination experience of his opponents.

You can learn more about Gene Wu from his campaign website and his interview with Charles Kuffner.

Early voting runs through Friday, May 25 and election day is Tuesday, May 29. Go vote and, if you live in Texas House District 137, vote Wu.

– Justin Gillenwater

Question of the Week

Which is worse:  (a) going through a 7.1 earthquake, (b) being in a car crash, or (c) strapping your dog to the top of your car (a la Mitt Romney)?  A penny for your thoughts.

— Gautam Dutta


Question of the Week

Would you feel better if you were stuck in a traffic jam — but everyone was driving emissions-free (as opposed to fume-belching) cars?

— Gautam Dutta