How can potential leaders from underprivileged backgrounds tackle economic inequality and climate change when they spend most of their time trying to earn a decent living? Here’s what we learned in Massachusetts.
By Carlos Espinoza-Toro
This piece was originally published in YES! Magazine
Last year, I conducted a community meeting in Jamaica Plain, Mass., to encourage residents to reflect on the gentrification they were seeing in their neighborhoods—gentrification that has rapidly accelerated in recent years. As newcomers moved in, the local mom-and-pop stores that had long served the traditionally Spanish-speaking population gave way to more chain stores.
Martha Rodriguez, a local resident, spoke about how she felt as though she were an outsider in her own neighborhood—a place where she had lived for more than 20 years, and where she wanted her children to grow up. With strong emotion, Martha conveyed in her native Spanish how new stores catering to newcomers didn’t offer products essential to her cultural well-being. She described how these stores, while they felt welcoming to new residents, felt unwelcoming for her and her family.
Martha’s powerful story set the tone for discussion around local leadership. Among the participants was Desiree Franjul, a Dominican Latina who used to live in Jamaica Plain. She had brought pastelitos and a cake, both gifts from her and her grandmother. She enthusiastically helped setting up and cleaning up.
When I asked Desiree about getting more involved in the movement, she replied: ”I want to do work [in Jamaica Plain], but I need to take care of my grandmother and her business, I have to finish school, and I want a job working with Dominican folks around nutrition… so I’m not sure I’d have more time to volunteer.”
Desiree is not alone in feeling this way.
Through my work as a community organizer strengthening local farmers markets, green healthy local businesses, local leadership, and other projects that help build community resilience, I connect with people fully aware about the negative impacts of climate change, gentrification, and economic inequality. Many are willing to work passionately toward building local solutions. But many, like Desiree, don’t come from privileged backgrounds and spend most of their time working hard and caring for their families. How could they tackle climate change when they are trying to make a decent living?
A few months after the community meeting, I reflected on the challenges of engaging diverse populations in hands-on work around climate change in a gentrifying neighborhood like Jamaica Plain. Through door-to-door canvassing and one-on-ones, I recall asking folks why they couldn’t participate in meetings or working groups.
One of the most common answers was not having enough time to justify volunteering, because they needed money to cover their basic needs. They love the idea of growing food, participating in community events, taking care of their children, and knowing and caring for their neighbors, but they do not see how they could earn a livelihood through these activities.
The Community Leaders Fellowship at the Jamaica Plain New Economy Transition, a network of local leaders, provides people like Desiree an opportunity to lead hands-on work in exchange for professional coaching. Money is not in the exchange yet, but fellows receive long-lasting benefits to further their career, such as understanding their professional and personal passions and developing professional connections.
Through one-on-one and group support, fellows develop sustainable and equitable projects—like the Boston Food Forest and the Cancer-Free Economy, both projects of our fellows—and complete tasks to implement them locally. Through reflection, they learn from their successes and failures, and are supported—both individually and collectively—to charge ahead.
Ultimately, they gain confidence in taking critical next steps in their careers—careers that are consistent with New Economy values. Active fellows and alumni have grown to more than a dozen activists, diverse in terms of race, professional and educational backgrounds, age, and sexual orientations.
The fellowship is an avenue to cultivate people who usually get excluded from the fold of leadership and whose voices we really need.
Enabling everybody to lead local work while creating livelihoods is critical if we want to build sustainable leadership in the new economy.