Jackson Koepell is Co-Director of Soulardarity and Partnerships Coordinator for Grand Aspirations. Souldarity’s mission is to empower the residents of Highland Park, MI to build self-determination through the collective planning and cooperative ownership of 200 solar-powered streetlights. As part of PCI’s “Weaving the Movement” project, a series of interviews and group conversations with leaders in the new economy and community resilience movements, we spoke with Jackson about the movement-building and healing power of community-controlled renewables, embracing the tension of diversity, and more:
Interview with Jackson Koepell (edited transcript).
Tell us a short story of a specific time when you were most inspired, effective and engaged in your work.
I can’t think of a better thing to say than describing where I’m at right now. Soulardarity, the local project I’m working on in Highland Park, has reached a pretty exciting milestone: we’re putting in our first residential streetlight next month at a community gathering space called Jakobi Ra Park. Something about the last 2 weeks of work has been unifying both in the sense of the complexity of the work I’m doing and the simplicity of how to do it. We have to put a streetlight in, which involved a lot of dense logistical stuff – the need to find a contractor, timeline, how we are going to make all of this stuff work. How are we going to plan a community celebration around this streetlight that will also advance our strategic goals of a participatory planning process for solar streetlights in Highland Park? We also need to create a different governance and staffing structure for the organization. And it’s involving conversations about development in the city and how to make our work on streetlights effect how to give people political power in that development process.
My days have been incredibly simple: meeting with people I have good relationships with and sending emails and handling money – lots of micro – things – but the way I’ve been approaching it lately has been unifying and helping with work I’m doing on myself. Being open and honest about my class background is increasingly important in getting this work done and having strong relationships here. And, additionally, there’s a huge issue of water shutoffs in Detroit that are being done in a strategic way to force people out of certain neighborhoods. And I’ve been engaging with that, trying to find a way to talk about the narrative of infrastructure/privatization, and how what we’re doing with solar powered street lights in its own very small way is contributing to an alternative narrative around that.
Right now it feels like this very small, specific thing we’re planning is very connected to the broader system and systems change that has to go into it. The level of energy, and the conversations I have about putting in the streetlight, and the actions we have to take. It’s very exciting to take these actions – from planning how to dig the hole and pour concrete to community asset mapping – while everyone is at the gathering. There’s this terrific energy right now where everything I’m doing is contributing to conversations and communities I’m part of that contribute to the broader strategy we need to make this little thing move forward.
This morning I met with Ivory, a contractor who does electrical work. He’s 20-something years older than I am but we went to the first streetlight we installed and reset a breaker – the first maintenance we’ve had to do in 16 months – then we had breakfast at a diner down the street and had this amazing conversation about the ways in which society conditions you to act a certain way and have certain beliefs, spanning things like religion and consumerism. The two of us couldn’t have had more different life experiences, but the quality of the conversation was so much deeper and richer because of it. We had this deep human connection of doing these small logistical tasks. In this moment every little task and every step is very much involved by the values I have and by my abstract intellectual analysis of the problems behind it. It’s a good centered feeling I have right now.
I’d have conversations with my family about privilege and justice and using our class privilege in a positive way which in other times have been unproductive but in recent times have been us asking questions of each other and mutually piecing apart our belief systems. It’s been increasing the depth of relationships with my family, which has been a really cool part of this.
Shamayim Shu – runs a non-profit called Moon Ministry and built a park on the vacant lot next to her house – and has been on the advisory board of Soulardarity since its inception. We had a two hour phone conversation about the streetlight install, and one of the things she said was that the installation and the events surrounding it is a healing ceremony. In doing this small thing we’re trying to address a massive amount of harm and trauma that has been visited upon this small community. It’s a beautiful thought to remember that on some level this is all healing work. And thinking about it and engaging with it that way is a part of why it has prompted me to focus on healing and looking positively at the relationships I have. If it’s not feeling like it’s healing somehow, there’s probably something missing from it and we need to reexamine our strategy.
The story of Soulardarity is remarkable: it was co-founded by myself and two other guys, the three of us made the first streetlight happen. Since that time I was the voice of pushing it in the direction of collectively planning the streetlights and finding a community ownership method, and during that time the others had new opportunities and stepped away from the project. In the fall of this last year I realized I had to take a lot of leadership if I wanted to move it forward, and took on a lot of power in the organization and built an advisory board and a stipended staff. This installation marks a turning point where we try to transition to a shared leadership model.
What is most alive in your work right now?
That tension of diversity feeling (that we started out with in the opening words) is probably what’s most alive for me. Even as we’ve been working on this stuff in Soulardarity, which is fiscally sponsored by Grand Aspirations (GA) [a New Economy Coalition (NEC) member that connects and inspires young people in starting green economy projects] and has been a big source of support for me. GA is having its main gathering this August, and we’re having conversations in advance about what we do well and don’t do well and what we want to change structurally.
Soulardarity is a year old and GA is coming up on seven years. So while I’m working on this interesting leadership transition in a very young organization, we’re also working on a structure change within GA that’s a very different life-cycle challenge. While I’m working on a very local level, I’m also having conversations with people in the Twin Cities and elsewhere in the country about how we can use community clean power projects as resistance flash points and a tool of wealth re-distribution. If you take the dollars of wealthy, well-intentioned people and put it into infrastructure that can generate renewable energy and be invested back into social movements.
Somehow working on all these different things isn’t stressful, and the fact that I can have all of these different types of conversations on so many different levels is a really productive tensions. The diversity point is also related to the many different types of conversations I’m having as well as the diversity of people engaged with Soulardarity. So the tension of diversity is most alive on the brain.
Imagine it is five years from now and your work has succeeded wildly. Frame your next responses as if you are speaking from that future point in time.
a) What has been catalyzed in the world?
This is a tough question for me right now because my brain is so deeply focused on the vision that’s arising in Highland Park specifically. Five years from now I really see myself still living in or near Highland Park. I think we’ve certainly succeeded in setting up 200 solar streetlights that are owned by an awesome cooperative that has massive voluntary participation from around the city – thousands of people engaged with it. That cooperative is connecting folks who normally wouldn’t have access to resources for energy efficiency and renewable energy projects for their homes.
The cooperative is also doing community-centered sustainable development projects in the city – gardens and huge take-back of the 50% of land that is owned by the city – by current residents. We’re seeing a lot of local food and a new storm water management structure. I’m also seeing that this cooperative that owns and manages the streetlights is also becoming an increasingly powerful voice in affecting the development plans for the city and creating really strong community benefits agreements and other mechanisms for ensuring the community benefits as the city develops in a sustainable way.
In five years, if our work is wildly successful we have an active and powerful anchor institution in Highland Park that is feeding New Economy throughout the entire city and increasingly supporting and developing similar initiatives both in the city of Detroit and regionally and nationally – which is the broader vision. I’ve been really inspired lately by Push Buffalo, another NEC coalition member. In 5 years these really strong examples on a hyper-local level of what a new economy looks like that are growing increasingly in the breadth and scope of what they’re doing locally has become connected and have the ability to seed and promote this in other places.
The other thing which is more troubling which came out of the round-table on the final day of the NEC gathering – if we are wildly successful we will have triggered some virulent resistance. If we’re successful in really building out these alternative models we’ll be challenging the governance structures which surround them and trigger larger and more serious fights that get at the core of what makes this economic structure tick. I’m not sure exactly what those fights look like, but if we’re successful we’re going to be generating conflict in places and that conflict will be necessary to have the whole system transition. At the table we were at we were talking about the very real possibility that in 5-10 years there are cities in the US that are under martial law because the New Economy work happening will be ungovernable by the current system – and it came up that Detroit is one of the places where that could happen.
So, wild success in my vision means having really strong local groups that are building power and causing the system to begin to backlash on a larger level. A realistic vision is that there’s no way this will happen in a flowers and Kumbaya process – there’s going to be struggle. And in 5 years, if we’re effective, we’re going to be initiating that struggle.
b) Imagine that the emergence of the New Economy Coalition in 2014 was a key to the success of your work over those next five years. Tell us how that happened.
I’m not sure I have a clear answer about this. The things I’m thinking are how the NEC is interacting with other coalitions and organizations that are growing, like how is NEC interacting with Our Power and Cooperation Jackson. Some of the exciting things about NEC that I would love to see in 5 years is being a leader in different models of philanthropy and being an advocate for re-distributive practices of philanthropy as a necessary part of building a new economy.
On a similar note, I think NEC is becoming more effective in that, and has become a really powerful resource for small grassroots projects to be engaged with the kind of national strategy and backing by strategic thought on a broader level that’s both giving funding and intellectual resources, bringing the national perspective of thought to grassroots groups, and making sure the thoughts and ideas of grassroots group are expressed in national strategy. Similar to how I think about being an organizer with lots of different kinds of privilege in a community that doesn’t have access to those kinds of resources.
I think NEC being a leader in a very supportive way is very important to me. If NEC is really successful, it’s supporting a tremendous amount of work and strategy, and not necessarily defining that strategy.
One last thing…
As a result of the water shutoffs, I’ve been thinking about how is this oriented in broader water struggles – looked at a series of reports that says all the big money folks in oil & fossil fuels have been buying up sources of fresh water. There’s an active strategy among people who know they can’t maintain social power through control of fossil fuels to consolidate power through privatization of water sources. And that’s probably a fight we can’t afford not to fight. I can’t say exactly how our work becomes a part of that, but I think it needs to become a high level concern. It’s too horrifying to imagine that actively shutting off water on thousands of homes every week in the city is an active strategy to make the city ripe for investment and development opportunities. They are taking away a basic human need. It’s an incredibly overwhelming problem.