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Reclaim the Future: Striving for Restorative, Economic and Environmental Justice in Oakland

Joshua Abraham
Date Published: 
March 01, 2006
    The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, based in Oakland, California, is looking closely at the intersection between restorative justice, economic justice and environmental justice, seeking lasting remedies to the problems continuously plaguing our communities. The Ella Baker Center has almost a decade of experience advocating for those stung by police brutality and the prison industrial complex. We know well that holistic solutions in poor communities of color must address the profound effect of the current punishment oriented criminal justice system.

The Ella Baker Center’s new project, Reclaim the Future emerges from a realization that people return from prison to toxic laden communities without hope of obtaining a dignified job. With an innovative and collaborative approach, Reclaim the Future calls for “Green Jobs, Not Jails.”

Urban solutions

Reclaim the Future is a pioneering project, designed to create jobs and reduce re-arrest rates while simultaneously addressing environmental injustices. Specifically, Reclaim the Future aims to execute the Green Jobs Not Jails strategy by:

    Helping to build a practical pipeline from the prison economy to the green economy, by matching urban workforce development projects with growing green enterprises.
    Developing and promoting the idea that much of the money spent on prisons and militarism would be better spent on creating environmentally sound, living wage jobs in urban America.
    Bringing environmental, economic and criminal justice organizations in low-income communities together around this visionary agenda and cooperative strategy.
    Building a broader coalition of conscience that includes environmentally conscious business leaders and investors, the mainstream environmental community, organized labor, the peace movement and public officials.

Alternative vision

The Ella Baker Center for Human Rights debuted and launched this vital strategic initiative on June 4, 2005, at the United Nations World Environment Day 2005 eco-summit in San Francisco California. This annual UN event convened under the theme “Green Cities.” Reclaim the Future thought it was our duty to make sure our alternative vision of a green city was witnessed there.

We also brought our friends along. A host of environmental and social justice organizations came together with us to create the first Social Equity Track at UN World Environment Day. Together we held over a dozen events, ensuring that the voices of people of color were heard and honored at this international event. We additionally impacted the Urban Environmental Accords, the UN World Environment Day legacy policy document that calls for the international mayors in attendance to green their cities.

The language we developed, encouraging the establishment of workforce training centers that specialize in equipping graduates with the tools to work in the emerging green economy, is included in those Urban Environmental Accords. We anticipate this policy to benefit the international social and environmental justice non-governmental organizations with whom we stand in solidarity.

Global to local

Reclaim the Future is emerging at an important and historic time for Oakland. Former Congressman, Ron Dellums, is coming home to run for the Mayor’s office after more than a quarter century of representing the Bay Area in the US House of Representatives. Oakland is buzzing with optimism. We want the people in our city to be prepared to propose visionary solutions. By getting Oaklanders talking about new policy ideas based on working national and international models during an election year, we can mold our city. We are the heroes we’ve been waiting for. Community backed solutions to the challenges in our communities will endure beyond elected leadership terms.

The most pressing environmental health concern in Oakland is bad air quality. West Oakland folks suffer from the worst of it. The Port of Oakland, located beside the predominantly African American community of West Oakland, stimulates perpetual diesel truck traffic. Diesel truck emissions are known to be among of the most carcinogenic discharges known. Exposure to diesel fuel byproduct contributes to the extremely high asthma rates and other respiratory health maladies in the community. How do we tackle this pressing issue?

Imagine a wholesale bio-fuel company being encouraged by city officials to relocate or expand into Oakland. The bio-fuel station would subscribe to holistic healing in the community. A number of formerly incarcerated individuals with job training secured though our re-entry workforce partners would work at the bio-fuel station. Then the bio-fuel station forms a partnership with the Port of Oakland to blend bio-diesel in all trucks using the port.

The solution to the environmental health problem we envisioned above actually resolves several pressing issues in the community. From an environmental justice perspective, air quality in the community is improved thanks to the bio-diesel blend in the trucks. The community can breathe easier. From an economic justice perspective, jobs would be provided in the community. A growing number of people could provide for their families in a dignified way and turn away from the underground economy. At the same time, these newly employed folks would feel the pride of knowing they are contributing to positive change in the community they live in. That makes a difference.

Locking folks into the emerging green economy who previously found themselves literally locked out of last century’s pollution based economy is the ultimate goal. In our view, there is no such thing as throwaway resources or species, and certainly not people. Growing incarceration rates for non-violent crimes wastes lives and decimates families. The holistic vision Reclaim the Future brings can restore lives and heal communities with the lofty principles of restorative justice and offering a second chance.

The Reclaim The Future (RTF) program is composed of Four Key Initiatives:

    1. RTF Pipeline Partnerships: urban pilot projects, showing that formerly incarcerated persons can be effectively trained and placed in a variety of green businesses and industries. RTF staff will not “run” any green workforce development programs; nor will it launch any new green businesses itself. RTF will instead function as a convener, catalyst and matchmaker – bringing workforce development programs (which may not be specifically green) together with green enterprises (which may not have considered hiring residents from the urban workforce). We are presently in conversation with a number of local and national workforce development projects that focus on formerly incarcerated people, formerly homeless people and at-risk youth.
    2. RTF Idea Factory: a network of thought leaders, committed to developing the philosophy, policy and political ideas under-girding Reclaim The Future. This network will include scholar activist, environmental justice activists, urban planners, green business entrepreneurs, etc.
    3. RTF MediaLab: a network of graphic artists, videographers, writers, poets, performers and dancers, committed to celebrating, documenting and evangelizing these visionary urban policies.
    4. RTF Academy: a training program for advocates of the Green Jobs Not Jails strategy and Reclaim The Future pipeline partnerships. The Academy will not be a workforce development program, but a training program for would-be organizers/advocates, who want to convince federal, state, local and tribal governments to adopt a Green Jobs Not Jails strategy.