Just a transition

The George Washington School on Wall Street in Kingston was the venue last Friday evening and Saturday for what its organizers termed an unconference. An audience of 200 showed up for “Surviving the Future: Connection and Community in Unstable Times,” billed as both a summit and a progress report on the sustained efforts of the past few years to organize radical political, economic and cultural consciousness-raising in and around Kingston. 

Focused on “just transition,” a template for change best known in the environmental and trade-union movements, the unconference – the organizers strove to emphasize its unhierarchical and improvisational elements — was sponsored by a cluster of local organizations which have relationships to each other, including financial, personal and ideological connections. The Good Work Institute, Radio Kingston, The O+ Festival, Commonwealth Hudson Valley, the NoVo Foundation, Kingston NY Transition and Rise Up Kingston were the seven sponsoring organizations. 

The stated purpose of the lively event was to discuss the future of Kingston, New York. “When the shit hits the fan, no one’s coming to rescue us,” Radio Kingston executive director Jimmy Buff was quoted as telling ex-Kingstonian Alexandra Marvar in the faraway British national newspaper The Guardian last Thursday. “We’ve got to figure it out ourselves, because this is our city. This is where we live. This is what we’ve got.” Buff said he was “privileged to be part of the high-level conversations about what happens next.”

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As it turned out, the unconference didn’t reach any conclusions about what would happen next. “Don’t wait to hear from us,” warned meeting co-facilitator Evelyn Wright in the cafeteria of the George Washington School during the last minutes of the get-together on Saturday afternoon. “We don’t know what’s coming next.” But she assured the audience that “the solution is right here.”

I was reminded of a Warsaw art show of famous Poles at which portraits of historical legends and later distinguished persons were arranged chronologically on the gallery walls. The last frame in the series contained a mirror. 

Wright is a Kingston resident, climate economist, energy analyst and longtime cooperative enthusiast who heads Commonwealth Hudson Valley. Like about a dozen of the other attendees, she has a program on Radio Kingston.

Something did happen a few minutes later, sort of. Though the event had been adjourned, a lot of people didn’t leave the cafeteria. About a hundred of them stood around in groups of two or three continuing to talk with each other. Face to face, they stood a couple of inches closer to each other than American folks usually do except in subway trains and at cocktail parties. Instead of retreating back into their isolated selves walking back post-meeting to their cars parked outside, they had discovered in all this talk about “just transition” something in common.

What they had in common may have been a buildup of confidence in the possibilities of constructive interpersonal reciprocity. Or it might have been a sense of solidarity about the role of new local community institutions, founded for the common good to control the machinations of merciless private capital, heedless consumerism and misled government. 

Whatever. For the participants, it was a constructive feeling. They wanted more of it.

In the here and now of Kingston civic life, the behavior, though not unprecedented, was unusual. Was this a harbinger of the future of Kingston, New York? Could Kingston maybe, just maybe, become the shining (small) city on the hill that would serve as an example for other communities?

I got the impression that Berkshire County in western Massachusetts is probably the collection of small communities in the United States where the transformative goals of the just transition have been pursued the most actively for the longest time. Following the ideas of the late British economist E.F. Schumacher of small-is-beautiful fame, the Schumacher Center for a New Economics, whose chief ideologist David Bollier was first speaker in Kingston Friday evening, has been applying this thinking to the Berkshires for several decades. Bollier called for returning ownership to communities. “We’re doing a ton of practice work to shift their power to our power,” he explained.

Kingston’s the new model exurbia which will attract talent, skills and capital from New Yoro City the way the Berkshires have from Boston (and New York). There have already been admiring journalists and top-25 lists, and there will be more. 

The other two Friday night speakers, Ariel Brooks from the Boston area and Kali Akuna from Jackson, Mississippi, described their community organizing. Akuna, the most emotional of the three, described “combining small interventions into a bigger movement,” often against formidable odds. The spirit, he said, had to be “I ain’t gonna quit.” Real relationships with human beings had to replace our world of material possessions. His plea for the need for a radical cultural shift and the urgency of transition got the biggest hand of the night from the people gathered in the school auditorium.

The all-day Saturday sessions consisted of circles on individual subjects at which everyone spoke. Summaries were prepared so that all the attendees could hear what had been said at the sessions. They were delivered. Each of the rapporteurs got a round of applause from the assembly. It was heartwarming to hear how articulate many of them were.

Just what would a just transition be? The five themes accepted for the unconference made for an attractive package: democratization of our institutions and resources, advancing ecological restoration, driving racial justice and social equity, re-localization of most production and consumption, and cultural retention and restoration. 

Whether the spark is literal or figurative, creating a fire from a spark is no easy matter. The process is often made easier by the addition of an accelerant. When it comes to social transformation in our society, money, so flexible as a medium of exchange, is a proven accelerant, often a necessary condition of success though insufficient on its own to guarantee success.

At first blush, it is ironic that all this social and cultural foment in Ulster County has been largely stoked by the philanthropic largesse of a son of the founder of one of the world’s greatest self-made fortunes, Warren Buffett. In 2006, Warren Buffett’s son Peter and Peter’s wife Jennifer, Ulster County residents, founded the Novo Foundation, whose objective is “to foster a transformation from a world of domination and exploitation to one of collaboration and partnership.” They are co-presidents. 

Warren Buffett contributes annually to NoVo. According to the most recent IRS filing available from 2017, the Novo Foundation reported his donation to NoVo of $169,466,164. Warren Buffett contributes a large donation annually to the foundation. NoVo reported assets of $651,666.779 at the beginning of 2017 and $726,122,397 at the end of the year. That didn’t mean that the younger Buffetts were less than active philanthropically. NoVo approved total contributions during 2017 of $179,452,000 to hundreds of diverse beneficiaries with programs that further NoVo’s purposes. It also designated considerable funds for future support. 

Since substantial funding is passed through other foundations and non-profits, the dispersion of NoVo funding to the Hudson Valley is hard to pin down with any degree of accuracy. A rough guess might be that NoVo either awarded or earmarked for future spending about $30 million in the mid-Hudson region during 2017. The majority of that spending was in Ulster County. The Hudson Valley Farm Hub was allocated easily the largest piece. Three million to Bard College and $3.9 million to Omega Institute were substantial NoVo commitments. Funding or commitments for Radio Kingston and People’s Place amounted to close to two million dollars each.

There’s a long list of other local 2017 NoVo recipients or future beneficiaries. The individual grant amounts to each organization do not give a full picture of the connections among the recipients or their shared work. That’s hopefully to be the subject of a later piece.

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