Category Archives: Organizing

Hard-Pressed Rust Belt Cities Go Green to Aid Urban Revival

A community farm in Detroit, which has been a leader in green urban renewal.

Gary, Indiana is joining Detroit and other fading U.S. industrial centers in an effort to turn abandoned neighborhoods and factory sites into gardens, parks, and forests. In addition to the environmental benefits, these greening initiatives may help catalyze an economic recovery.

By Winifred Bird

Beaver County Blue via Environment 360 Yale.edu

May 31, 2016 – Depending on how you look at it, Gary, Indiana is facing either the greatest crisis in its 110-year history, or the greatest opportunity. The once-prosperous center of steel production has lost more than half its residents in the past 50 years. Just blocks from city hall, streets are so full of crumbling, burned-out houses and lush weeds that they more closely resemble the nuclear ghost town of Pripyat, near Chernobyl, than Chicago’s glitzy downtown an hour to the northwest. Air, water, and soil pollution are severe.

Yet in the midst of this, Gary has quantities of open space that more prosperous cities can only dream of, and sits on a stretch of lakeshore where plant biodiversity rivals Yellowstone National Park. Now, the big question for Gary, and for dozens of other shrinking cities across the United States’ Rust Belt — which collectively have lost more than a third of their population since the middle of the 20th century — is how to turn this situation to their advantage.

The answer that is beginning to emerge in Gary and other cities of the Rust Belt — which stretches across the upper Northeast through to the Great Lakes and industrial Midwest — is urban greening on a large scale. The idea is to turn scrubby, trash-strewn vacant lots into vegetable gardens, tree farms, stormwater management parks, and pocket prairies that make neighborhoods both more livable and more sustainable.

These types of initiatives have been evolving at the grassroots level for decades in places like Detroit and Buffalo; now, they are starting to attract significant funding from private investors, non-profits, and government agencies, says Eve Pytel, who is director of strategic priorities at the Delta Institute, a Chicago environmental organization active in Gary and several other Rust Belt cities. “There’s a tremendous interest because some of these things are lower cost than traditional development, but at the same time their implementation will actually make the other land more developable," she said.

Or, as Joseph van Dyk, Gary’s director of planning and redevelopment, put it, “If you lived next to a vacant house and now all of a sudden you live next to a forest, you’re in better shape.”

Van Dyk noted that city planning in the U.S. had long been predicated on growth. But, he added, “That’s been turned on its head since the Seventies — Detroit, Cleveland, Youngstown, Flint, Gary have this relatively new problem of, how do you adjust for disinvestment? How do you reallocate your resources and re-plan your cities?”

Detroit, which has at least 20 square miles of abandoned land, has been a leader in envisioning alternative uses for sites that once would have been targeted for conventional redevelopment. The city has 1,400 or more urban farms and community gardens, a tree-planting plan so ambitious the local press says it “could serve as a model for postindustrial cities worldwide,” and $8.9 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to implement green infrastructure projects and install solar panels on other vacant lots.

But while demolition itself has added an estimated

$209 million to the equity of remaining homes in Detroit, Danielle Lewinski, vice president and director of Michigan Initiatives for the Flint-based Center for Community Progress, said hard data on the value of greening projects is more difficult to come by.

“There’s opportunity in Detroit to see an impact in surrounding property values, and therefore people’s interest in that area,” said Lewinski, who has been involved in land-use planning there. “The key, though, is that it needs to be done in a way that is strategic and links to other attributes that would attract a person to move into a neighborhood. My concern is that green reuse, absent a connection to a broader vision, may not be nearly as successful from an economic value standpoint.”

In Gary, the broader vision is to concentrate economic development in a number of “nodes,” each of which would be surrounded by leafy corridors of “re-greened” land. The corridors would separate the nodes, helping to give each neighborhood a more distinct identity, as well as bring residents the benefits of open space and serve as pathways for wildlife moving between existing natural areas. A land-use

plan for preserving Gary’s core green space is already in place, and officials are currently revising the city’s Byzantine zoning regulations to make redevelopment of the nodes easier. Continue reading Hard-Pressed Rust Belt Cities Go Green to Aid Urban Revival

Minimum Wage Debate Heats Up in Pennsylvania

Meagan Gemperlein, 25, is a part-time tipped worker at Pittsburgh’s Wigle Whiskey. Wigle owners say they pay each of the workers at least twice the tipped minimum wage of $2.83.

By Molly Duerig
Beaver County Times

Sept 1, 2015 – PITTSBURGH — Cori Shetter is a college graduate and aspiring actress who’s worked minimum-wage jobs for 15 years.

“It’s like swinging from Tarzan vine to Tarzan vine. One vine’s about to end and break, so you just grab the next one, but you’re never really putting your feet on solid ground,” said the 31-year-old Pittsburgh resident.

Living in her Lawrenceville home is only possible because her parents own it, and Shetter pays them as much of the mortgage and other expenses as she can.

The one major thing she could do to further her career goals — auditioning — has fallen by the wayside as she invests most of her time in serving jobs for small, but reliable, paychecks. She supplements that by cutting hair for up to 10 clients a month at home.

Many servers, like Shetter, earn Pennsylvania’s tipped minimum wage of $2.83 per hour. The standard minimum wage, both state and federal, is $7.25.

Many believe the minimum wage hasn’t kept up with the times, and movements to raise it are being led by grassroots groups and governments in communities across the nation. In June, Los Angeles became the biggest city in the country to raise its minimum wage to $15 by 2020.

Nineteen U.S. cities and counties experienced mandated wage increases this year; 29 states and Washington, D.C., already require employers to pay workers more than $7.25.

Pennsylvania isn’t part of this group – yet.

There are five bills pending in the state Legislature proposing to raise the minimum wage, with different methods and standards ranging from $8.75 to $15. Some politicians and business owners said they worry that putting this mandate on employers could mean fewer job openings and other cutbacks in the business community.

“If minimum wage is hiked, many of these jobs will vanish, or work hours will be drastically cut,” state Rep. Stephen Bloom, R-Cumberland, wrote in an email. “Employers simply find less costly alternatives, either through automation, technology or other means.”

Even economists, who also have opinions, disagree about the impact. Although some studies indicate a minimum-wage increase would cause job losses, other studies show just the opposite, said Sean Flaherty, the economics chair at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster.

“There’s just no strong consensus evidence that this is a significant problem when you have a modest increase in the minimum wage, done in stepwise fashion,” Flaherty said.

The proposals

The federal wage hasn’t increased since 2009, when it rose from $6.55 to $7.25. In 2008, it rose from $5.85.

Several states, counties and cities are taking the matter into their own hands.

In Pennsylvania, the most ambitious proposed bill is from Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Delaware, Montgomery. His “One Fair Wage” bill would raise the wage to $15 an hour and tie it to inflation across the board, for regular and tipped employees.

Continue reading Minimum Wage Debate Heats Up in Pennsylvania

300 Union Members Rally outside ATI’s Midland Plant after Lockout Begins

By Jared Stonesifer
Beaver County Times

Aug 17, 2015 – MIDLAND — More than 300 United Steelworkers union members locked out from the Allegheny Technologies plant rallied Monday morning not just for a fair contract, but for the chance to get back to the negotiating table.

ATI, which has 12 plants and employs more than 2,200 USW workers across the country, locked out the union members Saturday night as a result of a failure by the two sides to reach a contract agreement.

Union workers since July 1 had been working on a day-to-day basis after the last contract expired at the end of June, and negotiations had been progressing but hit a wall when union leadership failed to bring to a vote ATI’s “last, best and final” contract offer in early August.

Tony Tepsic, president of the Midland contingent of USW workers Local 1212, said more than 300 people marched through Midland on Monday morning demanding a new contract.

“We are on an official lockout as of now, and we’re spending our time picketing,” he said.

He called the rally “very productive” and said USW leadership attended, as did Beaver County Commissioner Joe Spanik.

Spanik, who worked in the union for many years, said it’s imperative to get local workers back on the job and railed against the fact that ATI plans on bringing in nonunion workers during the lockout.

“We want to see this resolved so the folks who live here in Beaver County can get back to work as quickly as possible,” he said. “We need to get them back to the negotiating table to try to settle a fair contract.”

Spanik said the march went through Midland down to the union hall and back up to the work site.

The commissioner said he also plans to contact Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald to work on a solution to get workers back on the job.

Spanik said other union rallies are planned for the ATI plant in Brackenridge, Allegheny County.

A representative from ATI didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.

Pittsburgh: Bernie Sanders for President: Yes, He Could!

Pia Colucci, right, of Oakland waits for Bernie Sanders to begin speaking during a telecast broadcasted at a meet-up held in Lawrenceville on Wednesday. Supporters of the Democratic presidential hopeful gathered across the country to watch the telecast. Rebecca Droke/Post-Gazette

By Tony Norman
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

July 31, 2015 – Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has more than a few fans in Pittsburgh, judging by the turnout for his first televised meet-up since his poll numbers began shifting in a positive direction nationally. The muggy Wednesday evening air did its best to discourage a line from forming outside the Spirit Lounge on 51st Street in Lawrenceville, but 350 supporters squeezed into the former Moose Lodge that had once been the home to many a studio ’rasslin’ night.

After ponying up the suggested $5 donation at the door, the cross-generational crowd of Democrats and fellow travelers jockeyed for the best vantage point in front of a projection screen on the east end of the hall. Mr. Sanders would televise his remarks to 3,100 similar gatherings across the country from an apartment in Washington, D.C., shortly after 7 p.m. Eastern time.

According to organizers, Mr. Sanders would be addressing as many as 100,000 supporters nationwide — a number that should concern the complacent Democratic establishment, even though the insurgent candidate trails former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton by as much as 40 points in some polls.

Still, Bernie Sanders has roughly the same level of name recognition that Sen. Barack Obama had at this point in his underdog campaign against Mrs. Clinton. Unlike Mr. Obama, who was still trying to justify his candidacy to skeptical black leaders already committed to Mrs. Clinton in the summer of 2007, Mr. Sanders is drawing more energetic and enthusiastic crowds than Mrs. Clinton — a sign that the party’s progressive and liberal base is hungry for something it isn’t getting from its presumptive front-runner.

There is still time for Mrs. Clinton to ignite the passion of grass-roots Democrats, of course, but Bernie Sanders is on fire right now in ways no other candidate for the nomination can remotely claim. When he finally appeared on screen to make his speech, there was a collective roar from the crowd that felt almost primal — a mix of sweat, genuine giddiness and exasperation that it has taken so long for a candidate who shares their deepest convictions and disappointment with the status quo to finally emerge.

Technical difficulties with the live stream signal on Pittsburgh’s end prevented him from being heard at first, but when his Brooklyn-forged accent finally broke through the buffering silence, the crowd was primed to hear the candidate declare his allegiance to their issues and priorities.

“The American people are saying loudly and clearly — enough is enough,” Mr. Sanders said after ticking off a series of priorities that would occupy his days in the White House. The candidate would return to this mantra many times after promising to reverse 40 years of middle-class decline and income inequality, raising the minimum wage, affordable college education and combating the “real unemployment rate” he insisted was over 10 percent.

“Maybe, just maybe, instead of higher rates of incarceration,” he said referencing minority youth, “we could provide them with education and jobs.” In a tip-of-the-hat to the #BlackLivesMatter movement that heckled him a week earlier, Mr. Sanders pledged to fight against institutional racism. Just as he was beginning say something about instituting a campaign finance system that didn’t reward corporate bribery, Mr. Sanders’ image froze on the screen, prompting someone in the crowd to shout: “It’s a conspiracy!”

Continue reading Pittsburgh: Bernie Sanders for President: Yes, He Could!

Progressive Democrats of America Bring Movement Pressure to Dems Through Bernie Sanders Campaign

PDA’s Conor Boylan with Bernie Sanders

Thanks to social media campaigns and behind-the-scenes work from the Progressive Democrats of America, Sanders’ chances at president have become a reality.

By Theo Anderson
In These Times

"Bernie is a no-nonsense guy who says what he believes and has legislation to back up what he believes."

July 13, 2015 – In late April, when he announced that he would enter the presidential race, Bernie Sanders was the relatively unknown junior U.S. Senator from Vermont. Now he’s everywhere.

Though the “Sanders surge” seemed to come from nowhere, it was long in the making. Sanders’ rapid rise in the polls, and his increasing visibility over the past few weeks, are in part the result of behind-the-scenes work by organizations like Progressive Democrats of America (PDA).

PDA was founded in 2004 by progressives at the Democratic National Convention who were disappointed with the party’s presidential nominee, John Kerry, but were unwilling to give up on electoral politics. One evening, at the convention’s conclusion, about 200 people met to chart a path forward.

“PDA was founded that night with an inside-outside strategy—to bring outside energy inside the party,” said Conor Boylan, who began working for PDA in 2009 and has been its co-director since 2014. “It was almost an insurgency: We’ll be members of the party, but we’ll also form our own chapters and hold the party accountable.”

PDA now has about 90,000 people on its email list. Of those, about 35,000 members actively support and participate in its work. It is funded by donations from its membership.

In early 2014, PDA began a petition drive to persuade Sanders to run for the presidency. When Sanders attended its tenth anniversary celebration in May of that year, PDA presented him with the petition. That event marked the beginning a strong push by the organization to encourage him to run for the Democratic nomination.

The effort paid off this spring when Sanders announced his candidacy. “We’ve just caught fire since then,” Boylan said. “So it has grown from this small idea—that we have to get Bernie to run—to him actually announcing. And I’m starting to think now that he could actually win this thing. It’s been amazing the way it’s gone the past 15 or 16 months. And where’s it going to end?”

Along with its sister organization, People Demanding Action (which focuses on advancing a policy agenda rather than electoral politics), PDA’s priorities are healthcare reform, campaign finance reform and environmental and economic justice.

House parties are central to PDA’s work. Its website allows people interested in volunteering for the Sanders campaign to sign up to organize a party or find one that’s scheduled near them. PDA sends organizers a kit with information on the basics of hosting a party and assigning people to different tasks, like handing out flyers and maintaining a social media presence. (Continued)

Continue reading Progressive Democrats of America Bring Movement Pressure to Dems Through Bernie Sanders Campaign

Raise the Minimum wage!

 

Our County Commissioners agree!

They will be passing a resolution on Thursday evening at their regularly scheduled meeting to support raising the minimum wage.

They have invited us to attend.

THURSDAY 4/23/15 BEAVER COUNTY COURTHOUSE 6:00 PM

Here in Beaver County, we once had a wonderful standard of living. One wage earner made enough to support an entire family. That money flowed through our community, making life better for everyone. We and our neighbors had money for the services that a proliferation of small businesses offered. Our children went to college and happily shopped for their supplies. Hobbies and recreation abounded. Now we have more minimum wage jobs in our County than ever. More of our neighbors are struggling just to pay rent and put food on the table. If their car breaks down, or they get sick and miss work, their family experiences a crisis. On an everyday basis they have trouble buying warm school clothes for their children. More and more of us are winding up in this position.

Continue reading Raise the Minimum wage!

Agencies of Social Change Often Wear a Clerical Collar

Faith making a difference in Aliquippa

Resurrecting Aliquippa: Faith

Kevin Lorenzi/The Times: Chris Ingram speaks to a church gathering at a "Black Lives Matter" service Dec. 14 at New Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal Church in Aliquippa.

By Tom Davidson

Beaver County Times

 tdavidson@timesonline.com |

ALIQUIPPA — Beyond the facts and figures in the sheaf of 150 pages that is the city’s Act 47 recovery plan are the people who live and do business here.

They’ve endured decades of economic downturns and slow decay since the industrial lifeblood of the community — Jones & Laughlin Steel and its successors — left with the collapse of the steel industry in the 1980s.

But the city’s people have leaned on another institution, one that many say is even tougher than steel: their churches and what springs forth within them, namely their faith. Despite the city’s financial woes, it has a strong spiritual foundation, and scores of people of all faiths are working to help the city resurrect itself.

"We see united … clergy like we’ve never seen before" crossing congregational and racial boundaries to unite for the city’s common good, said Rich Liptak, pastor of Wildwood Chapel in Hopewell Township, just across the border from Aliquippa.

"There’s genuine love and care for each other. It’s been great," he said.

More than 300 people attended a September service billed as Aliquippa Celebrates Faith, and for five years, each Saturday morning, a group of clergy has gathered to pray at various places in the city, Liptak said. He remembers times when there would be a shooting or stabbing on a Friday night, and the next morning they’d gather to pray near the scene of the crime.

But in the five years, the Saturday group has prayed in every neighborhood of the city, and it’s made a difference. After a stretch of more than a decade where there was at least one homicide each year in Aliquippa, the city saw a 16-month stretch in 2012 and 2013 without a murder, Liptak said.

"We see answer to prayer," he said.

He himself been a witness to the demise of the mills and the jobs they provided. His father, uncle and grandfather were all steelworkers. "It’s been a slow spiral downward" is how he puts it.

Liptak has listened to people longing for the mills to come back since they were shuttered. But the mills haven’t come back, and for 30 years, the city has been stuck in the state’s Act 47 program for financially distressed communities. The city’s latest recovery plan was approved earlier this year, and city officials are working to exit the program and foster a renaissance in town.

"I think we’re poised for improvement," Liptak said. He serves as president of the Greater Aliquippa Ministerial Association, a vibrant group of pastors who work together to make a difference in Aliquippa.

Making an impact

There are also groups including Aliquippa Impact that work to help youth.

Steve Rossi, executive director of Aliquippa Impact, said its main aim is to "foster tangible hope to youth" in the city.

"It’s not just spiritual in nature; it’s practical," Rossi said.

Aliquippa Impact has an after-school program at Linmar Terrace, a one-on-one mentoring program, a city camp, arts education and several summer programs for youth in the city. They try to teach kids what they can do themselves to ensure they have a bright future, Rossi said.

"A lot of it is common-sense stuff," he said. "We want you (the youth they serve) to own it."

The youth in the city are full of potential, he said, and they try to teach kids that they have the answers to the problems they face.

Many of the people involved with Aliquippa Impact, including Rossi, aren’t Aliquippa natives. They came to serve and not to "fix Aliquippa," he said, but to help the people there "fix themselves."

"It is a long-haul ministry," he said, with the long-term goal being that the kids served now will one day be a part of the ministry’s leadership.

A big part of it is "just showing up" to be there for the kids. "We can go so far through love," Rossi said. "It brings hope to families."

Offering coffee — and hope

Another group that’s active in Aliquippa is Uncommon Grounds, a coffee shop and ministry program based on Franklin Avenue downtown that was founded in 2005 by Church Army evangelist John Stanley, an Australian who has since returned to his native land.

The ministry lives on, thanks to Herb Bailey, whose first impression of Aliquippa differed from the persistent negative perceptions of the city that are common in Beaver County.

Continue reading Agencies of Social Change Often Wear a Clerical Collar

Bernie Sanders Lays Out Economic Agenda

Independent Senator Bernie Sanders delivered a fiery speech on the Senate floor Tuesday, laying out his new 12-point plan for rebuilding the middle class. Steve Kornacki speaks to Sanders about his efforts to make his party more progressive as he considers a bid for president.

SEIU, Workers Celebrate NLRB Ruling

Solidarity action vs UMPC earlier this year

By Kris B. Mamula

Reporter- Pittsburgh Business Times

Nov. 17, 2014 – Union and elected officials on Monday celebrated a National Labor Relations Board ruling that reinstated four fired UPMC workers and restored benefits and wages to fifth employee for union organizing activities.

"UPMC has been acting above the law," City Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak told union members and others who turned out for a news conference attended by a couple dozen people. "UPMC is not above the law."

The rally came as Mayor Bill Peduto has been reaching out to UPMC and other nonprofits in the city about voluntarily compensating the city for services in lieu of property taxes. Peduto was not at the news conference Monday, but he called for "long-term financing agreements" with the city’s nonprofits in an address to council Nov. 10.

Rudiak conducted the news conference at the City-County Building downtown and called on UPMC to "stop the intimidation, retaliation and legal maneuvers that keep us down." Separating the nonprofit contribution and unionization issues at UPMC would be "dangerous," Rudiak said.

The NLRB on Nov. 14 ruled that the hospital giant had disciplined and fired employees for try to unionize, which violates federal law. The Service Employees International Union has been trying to organize UPMC’s Oakland hospitals for nearly three years, but a vote by employees has not been scheduled.

Continue reading SEIU, Workers Celebrate NLRB Ruling

Beaver County Aid Providers Experience Tough Decisions During Poverty Simulation

Poverty Simulation

A poverty simulation experience presented by Aliquippa Weed and Seed, in conjunction with the Franklin Center’s Disproportionate Minority Contact Project, was held Friday at the Church in the Round. The simulation experience is designed to help participants begin to understand what it might be like to live in a typical low-income family trying to survive month to month. Here, the Rev. Marvin C. Moreland calls to be let out of "jail" during the simulation.

By Daveen Rae Kurutz

Beaver County Times

Nov. 4, 2014 ALIQUIPPA — Food, medicine or utilities.

It’s one of several stressful choices low-income families have to make each month. Keeping a budget in balance when necessary costs — such as housing, transportation and food — require almost all income is just one stressor that leaves people frustrated and looking for help.

That’s the situation several dozen Beaver County-area human-service providers found themselves in last week during a poverty simulation conducted by Aliquippa Weed and Seed and the Franklin Center of Beaver County. The program put participants in the shoes of a family living in poverty.

Participants were assigned to family roles — parents, children and grandparents — and given a budget and a series of responsibilities as part of Missouri’s Community Action Poverty Simulation.

“The whole idea is for human-service providers to have an idea what their clients go through,” said Jonathan Pettis, executive director at the Franklin Center. “They can take the lessons they learned back to their agencies. It’s really powerful.”

The simulation included representatives from Children and Youth Services, county Behavioral Health Services, Uncommon Grounds and other human-service organizations; members of the clergy; and officials from Aliquippa, Midland, Baden and the Blackhawk School District.

Groups were given different scenarios that low-income families regularly experience. Some families had absentee fathers or included children being raised by their grandparents. Other families struggled with divorce, affording college and teen pregnancy.

“The needs are very great,” said Abigail Young, virtual visitation coordinator for Trails Ministries Inc. in Beaver Falls, a faith-based re-entry ministry that works with incarcerated individuals and their families. “There is so much we all can do.”

Young, two of her co-workers and another participant played the roles of the Zuppot family — grandparents “Zola” and “Zeke” and children “Zenobia” and “Zander” — who struggled for four weeks in poverty.

Week One

A cashier at the local grocery store, Zola is the breadwinner for the family. Her husband has limited mobility and has to stay at home unless someone can help him travel.

The family was not able to buy food this week. There weren’t enough transportation passes to get Zola to work, the market and the Paycheck Advance office. When she did make it to cash her check, the office closed before workers could cash the check.

“Even when this family has cash, they can’t get where they need to go,” said Lola Thomas, a family coach with Trails Ministries who portrayed Zeke.

Week Two

The family still can’t buy food. Zola never made it to work after she and Zeke visited an interfaith service where workers gave them all-day transportation passes that they used to get to the bank to cash Zola’s paycheck and Zeke’s disability check.

Continue reading Beaver County Aid Providers Experience Tough Decisions During Poverty Simulation