Chuck Collins is a founder of Jamaica Plain New Economy Transition. 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 Chuck about the making the new economy real, bridging race and class divides, and more:
Interview with Chuck Collins (edited transcript).
Tell us a short story of a time when you were most inspired, effective and engaged in your work.
I was thinking of the day where I was very involved in the student divestment movement, creating the portal for individuals who want to express their divestment and move their money completely out of the old economy into the new economy. The days that feel most alive in this work is when I have the experience of the larger context as well as things happening locally.
I was part of a teach-in. We did a Jamaica Plain New Economy Tour. I was the one leading the tour, it was a beautiful June Saturday, we started at the Egleston Farmer’s Market which we helped set up and we had a little sign that said Jamaica Plain New Economy Tour – some people were from the neighborhood, some people from outside the neighborhood, even some from different countries, all in a circle introducing themselves. What does New Economy mean to 25 different people? Probably 25 different things. I had Kate who runs the farmer’s market come talk and she shared how the farmer’s market was getting high quality food into a food desert.
During the tour people just seemed to come out of their doors at the right moment. Bill from the "Agricultural Hall," our local Grange, gave this inspired little rap about growing up and being a member of a 4H club and how we don’t have anything like that in an urban area. Then we visited a dry cleaner we were helping to convert from using PERC to a green wet cleaner. The owner came and talked to us.
It was like an hour long stroll around my neighborhood telling my stories and others telling theirs. Then we get back to "Brewery" and the door to the Crop Circle Kitchen opened and people could see all these different food businesses there.
What struck me is I got to feel the integration of being part of a global movement, but also in this local space and making it very real and concrete, not so abstract. People said "I kind of heard the phrase ‘new economy’ and ‘community resilience’ before but now it makes sense…something about seeing it in the local context. And I started by setting the ecological context of the place as part of the base of the story of human settlement here.
What is most alive in your work right now?
We had our big neighborhood festival on Saturday called "Wake up the Earth," it’s about 30 years old, right where a highway construction project was stopped and now there’s a park, so it’s our annual celebration of that. And we had our table right in the middle of everything, with our 4 JPNET Fellows – 4 people who have committed to 4 months of high-level engagement. Lots of connection points for people walking by, catching them in our web of activities. We were very well staffed through the day, people would ask "What’s this about?" and you’d point to a few pictures and people would get excited about one aspect…
The undercurrent of what’s alive is just human energy, the desire to do something constructive where they have a sense of agency, was the feeling from people coming up to our table. There’s a pulse. We had a potluck last week on mutual aid and our time trade circle. People got excited about doing mutual aid flash mobs as a way to promote the time trade circle, something visible, like a little media event, and there were all kinds of people stepping up. And then we did an event on class and overcoming class and race divisions within the local efforts/local movement.
The inevitable question of who shows up and who doesn’t – what can we do to bring an awareness of cultures and subcultures that are formed around class.
People gather around a dozen smaller pieces of work, and we look at creating a larger narrative around how this is all connected. For some people it isn’t about the big picture, it’s about one specific thing. But for some it’s about the smaller pieces and the big picture.
Can you talk a bit more the class awareness piece?
We’re just trying to bring a class and race lens into everything. One thing about class culture and working class organizations – people who are attracted to the idea of Transition & resilience tends to be a college educated constituency, which can be class-diverse, but there’s a difference between being attracted to the concept as an idea verses a source of livelihood. So, part of our constituency is future oriented – thinking about climate change, resource depletion, etc., and part of our constituency is attracted to our projects like the time circle because they can get trade for a free haircut, and they are underemployed. And we always have really good food – part of our organizational commitment is to feed people quality food. People can come and eat; we’re constantly breaking bread together. We honor that people are coming in through different portals, and try not to be so abstract all the time. We’ll be more relevant as we do more stuff around livelihoods – moving money, moving consumer power to the local economy. The JP Local First Business coalition just did the second edition of our local independent business guide.
Another element is avoiding unnecessary weirdness whenever possible. We try to start meetings in silence, which to some is weird but most people love it. Another piece is around food – people have various sensitivities around food, we try to always talk about them. We’re going to be normative on some things and choose where we want to make our stand. That’s our whole organizational class/culture awareness.
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?
It’s been a rocky couple of years. We’ve had some disruptions, weather events, electric grid challenges. But the good news is we had put in place a while ago a bunch of preparation things that made a difference, and were widely seen as very effective.
We did grassroots emergency preparedness to get neighbors in relationship with each other and to assess readiness. And we really kicked the city’s ass on emergency preparedness. They were at the 5,000 foot level, while we really brought it down to earth. We created resilience hubs in schools, church basements, and retirement communities, so that each neighborhood was prepared in a variety of ways.
During the hurricane of 2015, this neighborhood was a model not only for the city, but the whole region. We responded with neighborliness because we were prepared. So a lot of resources then flowed into organizing these efforts all along the East Coast.
So just like in the Mexican hurricane in 1985, when I was down there as a relief worker, people said: "where is the city?” That catalyzed people to take things in to their own hands–community gardening, land takeovers, putting money into community investment. The two banks that were not involved in the shale bubble bursting and Wall Street collapse [were there] to help us take matters into our own hands. Spawned this self-determined spirit. People had given up on politics, but [then] moved into a grassroots democracy ethos. They were no longer just waiting for some Democratic Party politician to do the right thing.
[We had a ] flourishing of local independent enterprises, cooperatives, and communities taking over economic functions. The city now serves our economic agenda.
Here in New England, we get a lot of rainfall. We’re not dealing with drought, or the Cascadia Fault earthquake opening. So we’ve helped absorb some of the refugees from other areas.
Our New England New Economy Transition working group looking at resilience from a regional level ensured that we kept linkages between the urban and rural parts of the region, and shared best practices between localities.
The fact that there were thousands of people who had been through educational events and trainings meant they had begun to rewire themselves, and they helped to explain to other people that this was going to be hard, but it was a good thing.
We started this local movement to take back the Sabbath. We set aside a day when we don’t consume, and [instead] spend time with family and community. And stores started closing to honor a variety of Sabbaths…and [so] we took back the whole weekend. And rather than feeling like a sacrifice, people took it as a celebration. People walk places, spend time with family, celebrate. We took back the weekend.
Resilience starts with people working toward reclaiming control over their own lives. This includes space and local resources. Having a sense of agency and self-determination.
All the stuff we were doing around barter and alternative currencies really stepped up to help people meet their needs when there was an economic collapse. It wasn’t just a sideline, it was significant.
We paid attention to both the individual and the institutions. We were right: we had to build these things on a small scale before there was a wider necessity. And the fact that we did that made all the difference.
All of this led to realignment politically. Energy policy in this country now includes a carbon tax (with rebates to low-income people and low-carbon users) that has been in place for three years. It wouldn’t have happened with all these localities pushing for this. And some of the people who were involved in those projects are now leaders in community governance.
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 what happened.
Looking back on the conference, it was definitely a turning point. A sense of movement and mutual generosity was instilled there. It embodied this sense of possibility and making the road while walking. A community of practice came out of it. People shared more stories and practices and invited each other to come to their communities.
We made a major push to get local community activists to the event, and to host guests and tours.
The coalition itself came together to pick out areas to work together in places that were key pressure points, and where we all felt were needed. We all feel the need for local work, but we’re not just localists. We needed a coalition to be the embodiment of the movement. Those of us who believe we’re headed into uncharted waters and need to put our shoulders together.
It went beyond the local work. We worked to help with the follow-up in the Northeast and create more dynamic regional hubs, and create a community of practice.
A sense of possibility and generosity infused the coalition and that helped make it successful. I think Bob Massie’s sense of deep impatience (like a race horse who’s been in the barn for too long) helped as well… got us moving commensurate to the speed of climate change. It called forth capacities that we didn’t know we had.