Wednesday, November 29, 2006

EAOP Grad Becomes Newspaper Columnist on Grassroots Democracy

EDITOR'S NOTE: Recently, EAOP grad Steve Kowal became a newspaper columnist for The New Hampshire Gazette, the nation's oldest newspaper. In his column, Steve offers his ideas about how local communities can defend themselves against unwanted corporate intrusions. The first piece in the series ran on November 13. His future pieces will be updates on Steve's work with Advocates for Community Empowerment, an organization that Steve co-founded this year with EAOP grad Ellen Hayes. I already reported on their work in a Well-Trained Activist post on October 23, 2006. However, I thought people might like to see Steve's first piece for The New Hampshire Gazette right here.

The Democracy Corner
by Steve Kowal
November 13, 2006

Every day, citizens throughout New Hampshire and elsewhere come face to face with the realities of corporate plans to enter their community with a polluting, toxic, extractive or noisy industrial project. But too often, even when a majority of citizens passionately oppose these plans, they lose – and the offending project becomes part of their lives.

This happens so often we’ve become used to the story. Alert community members foresee the negative impacts of what is being planned. A small group of “concerned citizens” bands together to stop it. They hire a lawyer, study the scientific and regulatory rules, create signs pleading for someone to “Stop the Project,” write letters to the editor, call their elected officials and go to countless regulatory meetings to beseech government officials to please consider their health and welfare.

All too often they fail. Yet, don’t we live in a democracy? And doesn’t it fly in the face of democracy when a handful of corporate executives can come into a community with an unwelcome project and trump the rights of thousands of citizens?

This happens because we are playing in the corporate-defined ball park, using their bats and balls and following their rules. For instance, even though corporations are fictitious entities that were originally chartered by state governments to serve the common good, over the past 200 years courts have endowed them with the same Constitutional rights that you and I have. Likewise, when we want to voice our concerns, we are channeled into the confusing government regulatory maze where the rules are saturated by corporate influences. We are required to follow a narrowly defined script written by agencies created to “permit” and “regulate” the destruction of our environment. Even so, we continue to fight within this system because we believe that it is the only thing we can do.

It’s not. A New England-based community activist group, Advocates for Community Empowerment (ACE), helps communities redirect the discussion away from confusing scientific details, reframing it around the rights of “we the people” to decide the future of our communities. Instead of getting quagmired in the regulatory run-around, ACE empowers communities to define their vision and enact it into fundamental local law, which by definition, disallows the offending project. These laws also strip corporations of their illegitimate rights to act as “persons” making them subservient, once again, to the will of the people.

ACE draws upon the innovative work and expertise of the Program on Corporations Law and Democracy and the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund. Democracy advocate Richard Grossman and attorney Thomas Linzey of CELDF utilize cutting-edge, enforceable, legal strategies based on law rooted in the Bill of Rights and the federal and state constitutions. ACE and CELDF educate people about these concepts and strategies through an intensive weekend Democracy School™ for citizens and local officials.

Using CELDF’s legal strategies, visionary communities have taken the initiative to reclaim their rights to determine their own future. On September 19th, Tamaqua, Pennsylvania became the first community in the United States to bestow enforceable legal rights on nature. Last March, Barnstead, New Hampshire became the first community in New England to protect their water resources from corporate extraction while stripping corporations of their rights as “persons.”

So often we have allowed our communities to be defined by the corporate value of “endless more” rather than declaring our own values, vision and rules. Now, citizens in communities are reclaiming their power and sovereignty. They are standing up for themselves and, just as Howard Beale implored us to do in the 1976 film, Network, they are shouting, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore.”

Yet unlike a Hollywood movie, this is serious stuff. Now instead of just being “mad as hell” communities, at last, are choosing to use a new and powerful tool. This “new” tool is democracy.

For more information, call Steve Kowal at 603-431-9333.

Friday, November 17, 2006

EAOP Grad Savors An Environmental Victory

Sarah Hincks, a recent graduate of Antioch New England’s Environmental Advocacy and Organizing Program (EAOP), tasted victory this fall in her campaign to establish a conservation commission in Burlington, Connecticut. At a special town meeting, citizens overwhelmingly approved the commission, which will carry out a conservation and development plan, including the preservation of open space. When the entrenched first selectmen called for the vote “people literally yelled in favor,” Hincks reported.

Hincks, who has spearheaded conservation initiatives for years as a leader of the Farmington River Watershed Association, supported the findings of the original study committee that recommended the commission formation in 2001. When town officials dragged their feet for five years without securing voters’ approval, Hincks started her campaign with a simple letter to the editor of the local paper. Hincks and other activists then worked for months to place the decision before the town’s voters, holding the selectboard’s feet to the fire.

For assistance, she took the campaign to EAOP faculty member Abigail Abrash, and made it the thrust of her work in the program’s Advocacy Clinic. “Every week, I got feedback on my activities from students in my cohort and from Abi. It was extremely helpful in a real-world way,” Hincks said.

Although Hincks is quick to attribute the success to her fellow activists and supporters, Abrash says, “Sarah gets all the credit for making this victory happen. It stands as a perfect case study of what EAOP is all about.”

Hincks has lived in Burlington for nearly twenty years and may end up serving has on the soon-to-be-appointed commission. But this was not the driving force behind her effort. “It was more important to me just to get it started."

"I would really like to help other people, perhaps in other places, make changes where the environment wins,” she says. “Victory is delicious. I’m looking forward to another slice of it!”

Saturday, November 11, 2006

EAOP Grad Writes Series on Winning Support for Your Cause

I just wanted to let folks know about a useful series on strategic communications for environmental advocacy groups written by Environmental Advocacy and Organizing Program graduate Peter Alexander, who now directs The Biodiversity Project. The series is published on the GrantStation.Com website. Here is the text of GrantStation's announcement of this series of articles:
How to Build Support for Your Cause: A Strategic Communications Primer is a ten-part series by Peter Alexander, Executive Director of the Biodiversity Project. Since 1995, the Biodiversity Project has helped hundreds of organizations throughout the U.S. and Canada develop strategic communications campaigns to raise public awareness, concern, and actions to protect vital natural resources. This series can help ensure that your organization’s valuable resources are used most efficiently and effectively to further your mission. The series is adapted from a “communications primer” created by Biodiversity Project staff for groups working on Great Lakes issues. A more in-depth online version, along with other communication strategy resources, can be found at the Project’s Communications Toolbox.
While you are at it, you may want to check out the rest of GrantStation.Com's website, because it has lots of useful material about fundraising for advocacy groups and other nonprofit organizations. I've only started exploring this site, but it looks very helpful.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

"Accuracy in Academia" Group Slams Antioch's Advocacy Program

During a recent round of web-surfing, I found an interesting piece written by Malcolm Kline, the executive director of Accuracy in Academia --a well-funded rightwing organization based in DC that regularly attacks academics it deems as “biased” (ie. academics that the AIA perceives as liberal, progressive, green, populist, feminist, multiculturalist--or even committed to the theory of evolution and the growing international consensus among scientists on global climate change.)

The piece, entitled “Environmentally Correct Again,” was part of a series of op-eds by Kline that challenges what AIA sees as the US Left’s overwhelming “exploitation of the classroom or university resources to indoctrinate students; discrimination against students, faculty or administrators based on political or academic beliefs; and campus violations of free speech.”

I found his piece particularly interesting because Kline opened the article by naming me as a prime example of a teacher guilty of violating academic freedom because I force my students to become unwilling "foot soldiers in environmental campaigns." As he put it:
Steve Chase of the Antioch New England Graduate School, for example, led some of his lucky students on an "Environment Justice in the Mississippi Delta” junket last spring. Chase described it as a “10-day field studies trip to Louisiana’s Cancer Alley—the 90-mile strip of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans that houses more than 150 oil refineries and petrochemical plants.
He went on to add that this is just one of many examples where “students have been used as pawns of environmental activists when they should be in class.”

Kline, however, fails to mention a few important things to his readers. First, he neglects to mention the fact that the graduate students who participated in this field studies trip had voluntarily signed up for this elective course and even paid extra money to take it. Second, he neglects to mention that during the trip these students engaged in conversations with a wide variety of stakeholders, including elected officials, journalists, petrochemical industry executives, union leaders, scientists, EPA officials, environmental activists, and members of polluted communities--and then debated the validity of each of these people’s perspectives with each other.

Even more interesting, Kline neglects to mention Exxon Mobil's effort to suppress these students’ legal right to do research on pollution and public health issues in Louisiana, or that employees of Exxon Mobil pressured the Attorney General of Louisiana to force a staff member in the Attorney General’s Office out of his job after 26 years of distinguished public service—all because this staff member stood up for our students’ legal right to engage in research when they were being detained by Exxon Mobil employees.

Now, Kline knows all this, because he quoted me from an email I sent out in 2005, along with the press release that Antioch University immediately issued about this situation. It therefore appears that Kline and the AIA are actually against graduate students having the option to: 1) take field studies courses focused on environmental justice issues, or 2) explore a wide variety of perspectives about the issue, if it includes the viewpoints of people who are critical of corporate power and industrial pollution. For Kline, all of this is a serious attack against academic freedom.

Yet, Kline apparently has no problem with a giant corporation having off-duty police officers in its employ detain students for over an hour, lie about the law, and threaten students with being added to Homeland Security's "terrorist list" for engaging in the completely legal act of photographing an industrial facility from a public side walk. He also doesn’t seem to believe it is a violation of free speech for a giant corporation to pressure the Attorney General of Louisiana to force a courageous civil servant out of his job for defending the legal rights of students to do their academic research.

I’m glad Kline and Accuracy in Academia are not “biased” in any way--and that they are such ardent defenders of “free speech” and “academic freedom.”