At the intersection of marine conservation and social, economic, environmental and food justice

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Gulf of Vermont; Revol-Oceanary Road Diary 7/19/14

This trip wasn’t supposed to have a stop in Vermont, but I thank Food Solutions New England for changing things up. Although at first I was perturbed about what appeared to be complication and disruption of plans it all ended up being exactly how this trip should have started.

Vermont's role in our fisheries work is more significant than you might think for a landlocked state (if you don't count Lake Champlain). Fletcher Allen Health Care was the first hospital to work with us on taking on the challenge of incorporating local seafood into their menu. Diane Imrie, director of nutrition services at FAHC made it clear that following seafood certifications such as the MSC and the red/yellow/green lists were a good start, but they didn't go far enough. FAHC needed to go deeper. 

We've been working with FAHC since 2010 through our friends at Health Care Without Harm. And ironically, my friend Paul Bogart is the chief program officer for HCWH, and lives down the road from Putney with his wife Judy Robinson and their family. Paul & Judy are long time activists, and as you'll see from this blog, have played an important role in my work and life. 

I’ve known Paul for 25 years. We first met in the smoking room of the Greenpeace office in Washington, DC. Yes, such a place existed and Greenpeace activists smoked. And probably some still do. Imagine a smoked filled room where passionate activists had heated discussions, told long tales from long stretches on the road or on Greenpeace ships, discussed campaign strategies, and even made some pretty important decisions. The non-smokers who were coming to the space for its intended purpose – to use the kitchen – were often justifiably pissed at the smoke-filled environment.

Judy, Paul and Raphael (left) and the kids.
That’s where Paul and I met. At the time, Paul was the head of the Antarctic Campaign at Greenpeace a campaign veteran with many voyages to the “ice” to his credit. I was a greenhorn toxics campaigner who had just come off a three-month stint on a Greenpeace tour of the Great Lakes with the ship M/V Moby Dick and the bus The Terrapin. From there I’d started working with the community of East Liverpool, Ohio working on what was to become the watershed case of toxic waste disposal, particularly incineration. He went on to become the political director for Greenpeace US, and I moved on to manage the Toxics Campaign. Our friendship grew as we dove into complex issues together.

This is a much younger me... in the early 90s 
leading a WTI protest at the White House.
But the pivotal moment for me was in early 1994 when Paul asked me if I would consider switching campaigns to bring the community organizing strategies of the toxics and environmental justice work to ocean issues. After much hesitation and to both of our surprise I eventually agreed, but not until I saw that the ocean work was really about the same thing as the toxics work: global movement of capital putting communities and environmental at risk. I move to Gloucester, MA in 1994 sight unseen. Twenty years have gone by, and Paul and I have worked on various issues together and our friendship has grown deeper in the process.

Amongst the projects we worked on together was a stint at the Healthy Building Network, where he was the campaigns director. One of the HBN projects we collaborated on was Unity Homes, a modular home factory in rural Mississippi with a non-profit business model designed to bring affordable, well built, healthy and energy efficient homes to those who lost theirs in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  Unity Homes’ specific focus was on serving those who were marginalized by the housing, banking and the broader real estate world. In the aftermath of Katrina, those are the people who had to endure the toxic FEMA trailers. They are the dispensable ones.

Celebrating Unity Homes ribbon cutting in 2007, serving as the
headquarters of the Gulfport Community Land Trust.
As a side note, my dog Hailey is a Hurricane Katrina survivor who was picked up in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana in the aftermath. 

Unity Homes was a brilliant and moving project. But it could not weather the perfect economic storm of December 2007 when the housing market collapsed, the recession started, and the credit market collapsed  just as the factory had been completed . On top of it all, the likes of Bernie Madoff disasters made philanthropic money scarce. It was a tough time to start a non-profit, much less an innovative one like Unity Homes. I felt this crunch as this was the same time I heard NAMA was looking for a new director and took the helm of the organization, and realized first hand how hard it was to raise funds during such a time.

On the surface, Unity Homes may not have a direct impact on fisheries and marine conservation, but the building materials manufacturing, particularly the production of PVC plastics for various uses including the building trade, contributes to the toxic burden of the Gulf of Mexico and other bodies of water. Shifting that manufacturing process to a green one reduces the amount of persistent bio-accumulative toxins in the marine environment that end up there as a byproduct of manufacturing. This is why it’s so important that we look at non-fishing impacts on the marine environment.

Fast forward to today, Paul and I are once again working together this time marrying the work of Health Care Without Harm, where he serves as the Chief Program Officer, to our work of protecting the marine environment and the coastal fishing communities that depend on healthy marine ecosystems.

I met Judy first when I was working on a project to mark the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal Chemical disaster. I was tasked with planning a US tour for two Bhopal survivors to raise awareness about Dow Chemicals involvement in and dismissal of what happened in Bhopal. The survivors were in the US to receive the Goldman Environmental Prize, the Oscar of the environmental community.

Bhopal survivors Champa Devi Shukla (left) and Rashida Bee flank
fisherwoman and Gulf coast activist Diane Wilson in 2004.
At the time, Judy was at the Environmental Health Fund coordinating the Coming Clean Collaborative. Today, Coming Clean has become it’s own entity with Judy as its executive director. NAMA is a member of Coming Clean, and in fact our inspiration for convening the Fish Locally Collaborative in 2008 was Coming Clean’s structure and success. More on our collaboration and work of Coming Clean further down this blog.

As luck would have it, Paul & Judy are now married living in Vermont. So the FSNE meeting gave me a chance to start my train journey after spending some time with them. I spoke to Paul and Judy about how our missions, values and strategies merge. Then I headed to Albany to hop on the Lakeshore Limited Amtrak train heading to Chicago…. Only to find out a boulder had fallen on the tracks in Poughkeepsie grounding us for a number of hours. As of this writing I’m still not sure if I will make my Portland bound train connection in Chicago. We’ll find out together!

In the meanwhile, onto the conversation with Paul & Judy.

What’s Fish Got to do With Healthcare?

I asked Paul about why the fisheries work is relevant to their work with the healthcare sector. Here’s Paul’s response:

“Our work is focused on lessening the environmental burden of the healthcare sector. Healthcare’s responsibility is increasing shifting from treating chronic disease to treating population health and you can’t have population health without community, environment and economic health. NAMA’s work is part of the strategy to shift this burden with positive drivers on both sides:

o   HCWH drives the issues we are trying to solve through the healthcare market’s impact on the ecosystem
o   NAMA’s work contributes to HCWH’s work by addressing population health

A Different Life Cycle

I asked Judy the same question, and she said:

“Coming Clean picks up the problem where it is along the lifecycle of industrial chemicals and dirty energy, and unites communities and other interest groups along that lifecycle.

At one of Coming Clean’s general meetings a delegation of a dozen Native Alaskans, including the major of Savoonga, joined other members of Coming Clean in Washington DC.  A special event was arranged for the delegation to present data from a recent marine monitoring study to EPA and other agency officials.  The indigenous group brought salmon to share, a cultural offering of something so important to their lives and survival. It was also the subject of a study they were announcing, which had found PCB levels in the fish so high it qualified as hazardous waste. Isolated and without access to grocery stores or other sources of food that we take for granted, the fish they caught, smoked and brought to DC was truly the source of life and livelihood for the rest of the year. And they are very respectful of their relationship with the salmon because of it. They had to bring their fish all the way to DC to show the government agencies that the They shared cultural dance and presented the study findings about the toxicity in the fish. Then the meeting was over and the fish was offered as a cultural gift to the group. It was a very complicated relationship between everyone in the room and the fish now. Perhaps some people were at first excited to have freshly caught and smoked wild Alaskan salmon: but now they all knew the fish had high levels of PCBs.

This brings home that as with the fish, we’re all in this lifecycle together. The fish and the people may as well be the same thing because that’s the dependency. That’s how interconnected the relationship.”

It’s a Small World After All

In the middle of visit, one of their friends, Raphael, stopped by. All I knew about Raphael till then was that he worked in architecture and the design/build environment. He told me they work on energy efficient houses that are more affordable for most of the population, are built offsite and assembled onsite.
I instinctively turned to Paul and yelled “Unity Homes!” only to find out that Raphael’s work is in fact Unity Homes. The Unity Homes Paul and I worked on when we were both at the Healthy Building Network is now Unity Homes where Raphael works. A while ago, the owners of the architectural firm Raphael works for reached out to Paul asking to buy the Unity Homes domain not knowing about their relationship. A small world, indeed.

Paul said the value of Unity Homes was in the concept not in the name, so it wasn’t a hard decision.

Like the original Unity Homes, the New England one uses smart design, energy conservation, offsite fabrication and onsite installation. But unlike the original one it targets the population that is a little higher on the economic food chain.

Paul explains that the significance of the original concept was the reason behind using the word “unity” as the name of the non-profit company. “The unity came from that there were those in the Gulf of Mexico and the Delta who were providing down payment assistance, others offering credit counseling, and some developing job programs around housing but no one was building and selling housing using a non-profit model that is serving specifically the communities that sought out and utilized these services. We wanted to complete the housing chain.”

It was a bit of a surprise to find out the connection between Vermont and the Gulf of Mexico, and how one project unified these two completely different communities.

As I was leaving, I asked Judy about the possibility of partnering with Coming Clean to work on making sure non-fishing issues such as the impact of persistent pollutants, mining, oil, gas and chemical industries are addressed in the reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. We decided we needed to connect our policy leaders and organizers in our respective collaboratives – Coming Clean and Fish Locally – so we can build a bottom-up, non-violent force to be reckoned with that holds these industries accountable when it comes to their impact on the marine environment and commercial fisheries.

Being with Paul and Judy reminded me of how important our relationships are, how connected all of our work is, and how important it is to take the Revol-Oceanary Road. 

No comments:

Post a Comment