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Unlikely Suspects – Deep Outreach: Resilience for Whom, and to What End? - “Transitioning for All”

(Ed. note. Please see our two-part publication of the paper that Pamela refers to on Resilience.org starting today.)

It’s time to ask some thorny questions of the Transition movement. We need look no further than Kingston, the first capital of New York, to begin.

In a recent critique, The Transition Movement: Questions of Diversity, Power and Affluence, the Simplicity Institute exhorted Transitioners to: 1) pay more attention to community power dynamics conditioned by the racial, ethnic, gender, and socioeconomic stratification that shape relationships, and, 2) work to ensure that Transition isn’t primarily a pleasurable movement for predominantly white, educated, post-materialist, middle class small community people (learn more in an upcoming teleseminar with the Mid-Atlantic Transition Hub). Acting on either suggestion requires courage and commitment. 

Transition groups are indeed for the most part, white and middle class. Transitioners in towns like Kingston where people of color comprise a full 35% of a population of 23,700, puzzle over how to racially and socioeconomically diversify their groups. The Simplicity Institute critique pointedly urges the Transition movement to self-observe, probe deeply, and determine, “Whose resilience are we concerned about, and to what end?”

Climate change impacts us all. No particular group is exempt from the ravages of gale force storm winds, extended power outages, and drought-induced food shortages. Yet few Transition initiatives consistently focus on understanding the deeper community economic and power dynamics that generate their homogenous groups. How might Transitioners take up this extremely uncomfortable task? Should Transition be more explicitly concerned with social justice?

First, Transition outreach planning might pose deeper questions than, “Why don’t people of color come to our friendly, welcoming potlucks?” Sincere interest in “Transition for all” compels groups to ponder as a baseline: WHO has historically, and currently lives in which areas of our town and why? WHAT social circles, institutions,economic engines and patterns drive commerce and employment in town? WHERE, if at all do people of diverse ethnic, racial, age, gender and socioeconomic backgrounds intersect in town? 

Transitioners might then conduct an internal inventory of their own motivations, skills-sets; emotional, psychological, spiritual/humanitarian resources and preparedness as they embark on any diversity journey of depth that values authenticity.

Those who seek to Transition Kingston immediately note that like many towns, Kingston encompasses several distinct micro-environments that rarely intersect. Walkable Uptown, which witnessed an influx of “more stable” retailers over the past five years, exemplifies one dimension of a Transitioner’s localization dream. One can shop at the farmers market, get a haircut and aromatherapy massage, stop at the bank, visit the doctor and sample a variety of cuisines on foot. Vegetarian restaurants serve locally sourced foods, niche retailers abound, loft spaces are available in revamped industrial spaces, and one can find everything from grass-fed beef to exotic fair trade chocolates.

Kingston’s Rondout area offers a scenic stroll along the city’s historic deep water dock. A holistic health center, galleries and waterfront restaurants hold out the promise of similar business and exciting real estate development opportunities to come. 

A radically different economic flow pattern is operative in Kingston’s high storefront-vacancy Midtown area: the corridor which includes the “red zone” from Franklin and Broadway to Wall Street. Cyclical “tough on crime” raids in this part of town provide the economic fodder and foundation for the mortgages, purchasing power, and lifestyles of thousands of New Yorkers employed by Eastern, Shawngunk, Wallkill, Fishkill, Hudson, Coxsackie, Greenhaven, and Green Prisons to name but a few of many penal institutions and all of the attendant branches of the NYS criminal justice system.

New Progressive Baptist Pastor Modele Clarke shepherds a Midtown Kingston congregation consisting of 80% “returned citizens,” that is, residents who have returned home following incarceration or drug rehabilitation. On certain blocks in Kingston’s Midtown there are only three addresses that are not under some form of legal supervision. As anyone who has attended an ENJAN (End the New Jim Crow Action Network) meeting at Pastor Clarke’s church can attest, the imperative that NYS prison beds must be kept full at all costs is widely recognized.    

The enforced economic contribution to the NYS economy of Kingston’s “red zone,” according to a white ENJAN activist who served five years in Ulster County Prisons, is an ensured cell-block head count. She posits that parole policies to which she is subject make it next to impossible to find meaningful employment (for which she is highly qualified) that would help halt the circular conveyor belt back into the system. As one of only four white women in her prison “pod” of 48 women, she knows the picture is exponentially more abysmal for people of color. 

The lasting impact of movements, whether environmental or social, hinges upon the extent to which the movement emerges from the ranks of those most deeply affected. Similar to the Transition demographic make-up, social justice circles in Kingston draw white middle class activists with connections to the Peace, Civil and Women’s Rights movements of the 60’s and 70’s. ENJAN meeting participants, for example, are overwhelmingly white. A practical reason for this might be that at any given point in time 50% of Midtown residents are on parole curfews and cannot be out of their homes after 8:00 PM to attend meetings.

Further exacerbating the non-intersection of Kingston demographic circles, Pastor Clarke observes that middle class people of color diligently maintain the same distance from those struggling financially in Midtown as their white non-activist counterparts. How might Transition initiatives bridge chasms of this magnitude, mirrored in towns and cities throughout the country?

Meanwhile, as climate change indifferently accelerates, resilience as measured by extreme weather recovery speed is extremely group specific. We’ve repeatedly seen throughout the state in the wake of Irene and Sandy, that electricity is restored much faster in networked neighborhoods with connections to resource persons who can turn on the lights, attend to the roads, and cut through insurance red tape.      

How will Transitioners address the fact that:

a.       resource depletion and climate change will effect various groups in different ways?

b.      relocalization may not be equally as applicable to everyone?

c.       some people are more adaptable than others given aspects of change that have more to do with historical power than place?

Diversification of the Transition movement is a litmus test that can indicate how prepared we really are to embrace a future transformed by climate change in which the old navigation coordinates will have evaporated. The degree to which we can calm the discomfort that often grips us when among people who appear to be radically different from us, is the degree to which we can truly deepen our resilience as we wade into the unknown.

The Mid-Atlantic Transition Hub (MATH) will offer a webinar series entitled:"The Maturation of a Social Movement: A Regional Response to a Critique of the Transition Movement" on the Transition US website. The series will explore diversity in Transitioning among other issues raised in the Simplicity Institute critique. The first webinar session will be offered November 6, 2014, 2:00 PM ET. Register and be part of the conversation: bit.ly/mathresponse

Blog post by Pamela Boyce Simms, KD2GUF, Transition Trainer, Transition US, Convener, Mid-Atlantic Transition Hub (MATH)

Fourth and fifth photos from top are courtesy of Jim Peppler

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