One of the most inspiring Transition initiatives I visited in the US recently was Jamaica Plain New Economy Transition in Boston. With our theme for this month focusing on austerity, JPNET (as they are known to their friends) have useful contributions to make to our discussions. They formed in 2009, and hosted a Transition Training. Following the training, they sat down to explore how they might set about doing Transition in their community of 40,000 people, an inner-city neighbourhood, where half the people are non-white: Asian, Latino or African-American. They resolved to set about building resilience with a particular focus on livelihoods, but in a way that reflected the neighbourhood’s diversity. I spoke to one of the initiative’s founders, Chuck Collins, to find out more.
What follows is based on our conversation, sections of which will be posted through this piece as audio files you can play or download. Firstly Chuck introduced the group and how it came to be:
As a group, they strive in all their events and meetings to welcome everyone, and produce their materials and run their events in both English and Spanish. The project’s manager and community organiser, Carlos, is fluent in both. I asked Chuck to describe some of the things that JPNET actually does on the ground:
The annual State of the Neighbourhood Forum: a huge event (between four and five hundred people) which invites people to reflect on the community’s needs and to problem solve creative ways forward. The elected city official are invited, but as ‘keynote listeners’
JP YardSharing: a Garden Share scheme similar to that run in other Transition initiatives
Egleston Farmers’ Market: a community-led initiative to make fresh, healthy, locally-grown food accessible throughout the year, bring people from all parts of Jamaica Plain together, and support the local economy
Supporting existing businesses in the community: it’s not just about new enterprises. For example, they worked with a local butcher’s shop to help him find a local supplier and then expanded his clientelle by letting people in the JPNET network know that it was available
Working with local businesses to reduce the health risk of their operations: in particular beauty parlours and dry cleaners
Boston Food Forest: an ambitious plan to plant food-bearing trees across the community
JP Resiliency Measures: some fascinating work looking into indicators for measuring resilience in the community
Egleston Community Orchard: a community orchard (see below) planted on the site of a former waste ground that was the site of a shooting. The garden has played a part in reducing crime in the area
The Boston Bean: A local currency scheme that is currently being piloted (see below)
I asked Chuck about how he sees the work of JPNet in the context of austerity? "We don’t want to start by assuming that there is a need for austerity", he told me, quoting a friend who had told him "we’re not broke, we’re just twisted". However, it is clear that austerity is here to stay and although it’s not entirely necessary, it is, as he put it, "an opportunity to define a sense of community agency".
As Chuck told me:
"We won’t have the same flow of resources. We have to adapt and make a shift. We are certainly not going to have the same energy resources. Austerity also makes us think about what really matters. What is real wealth? How do we organise so that the resources that the community needs are still there. We can’t sit out the austerity debates, we have to participate in them".
We discussed the potential of being able to model a new economic model on the ground. Chuck told me:
"Even though the government looks like it’s broke, there’s a lot of private wealth, and one of the things that has happened is that we have become extremely unequal, but some of that wealth can be drawn back into the locality if we invite it in in the right way. We ask the wealthy people in our community to re-establish a stake in our locality. It’s both a personal and an organisational ask.
We invite them to make investments in local businesses. Move their money out of Wall Street and into the local intermediaries that invest in the community. Take your money out of the fossil fuel sector but also put it into the local new economy businesses. That’s where I think we’re trying to move the resources that have moved out of our community, to bring them back or to hold them".
I was curious as to where he feels JPNET will be in 5 years time:
For Chuck, one of the key powers that a Transition group has is what he calls "The Power to Convene". By this he means the power to mobilise people around an idea, a new enterprise, a project. If someone comes to JPNET with an idea for a new enterprise, the group can organise an event around it, and invite people who share that passion to get involved. That is something that the group feel committed to continuing.
They also see a role as a broker, working with different local organisations to help them make changes. For example, Chuck outlined the possibility of working with the local hospital, who are committed to promoting healthy lifestyles, to invite them to support a post looking at how the community could produce more calories locally through a range of exciting JPNET activities. The JPNET of the future would never be a huge organisation, never more than 3 or 4 people who could sit round a table, but that catalytic role is central to its evolution.
One of the striking things about JPNET is the degree to which they have put issues around diversity and class central to their work from day one. The group’s leaflets are all done in both English and Spanish, and they have an awareness about how to present Transition, in terms of language and how Transition is presented. As Chuck told me:
"If you put out a call and say "climate change, peak oil, environmental threats", you get one group of people who tend to rush into the room, and they tend to be people who have a little more social capital, they tend to be white, they tend to be people who understand the environmental threat as the paramount threat. If you put out the call for local jobs, jobs of the future, ways to address rising energy costs, youth opportunity, decent wages, opportunities and livelihoods, and you want to address both race and class inequality, then you get another group of people in the room. Our challenge has been from the very beginning as part of the DNA of our group to say that the equity issues are central to our Transition and sustainabiulity. We want to live in a community that is flourishing and much more equal than the society at large".
In this final piece of audio, Chuck reflects on the difference the way in which you message Transition makes to who turns up and gets involved.
If you want to find out more about the group’s work, visit their website. My thanks to Chuck and to the other members of the group who were so welcoming, and for the fascinating tour of their work.