Balm in Gilead: Eric Walker
January 15, 2015
January 15, 2015
A leader with deep roots in Wisconsin, Eric Walker is a Co-Founder of People United for Sustainable Housing (PUSH) Buffalo, a membership-based community organization fighting to make affordable housing a reality on Buffalo’s West Side. He has worked to put Buffalo’s grassroots community on the “green” map, anchoring local and state coalitions to drive campaigns for energy efficiency in low-income communities leading to multi-million dollar investments in PUSH’s core organizing district. Some of his signature work with PUSH includes working with the Center for Working Families to pass and implement the Green Jobs/Green NY program – the first statewide program in the country to use community organizations to drive residential retrofit demand – and transitioning to become the Founding Director of PUSH Green, a community-based energy efficiency initiative.
Eric recently ended his time as the inaugural fellow with the Center for Social Inclusion’s (CSI) Energy Democracy Project, where his work focused on identifying barriers to low-income people’s participation in energy efficiency and renewable energy programs, the shortcomings in current policies and engagement strategies, and recommendations to advance energy democracy at the local and state level. Through his work as a fellow, Eric helped launch the Energy Democracy Working Group – a collective of organizations fighting to ensure low income and communities of color are in the driver’s seat of the NY’s energy future – with the Alliance for a Green Economy (AGREE).
Kevin Ryan: How did you first get involved in organizing work?
Eric Walker: That’s always an odd question because I never know how to answer it. If it’s the first job I got paid to organize, then that was working as project staff on a very short-lived campaign to organize home-based daycare workers here in Erie County back in 2003. But I feel like I’ve been involved in organizing work for longer than that. I’ve been around the organizing scene since the late 90’s. The Million Man March was probably the first mass mobilization I ever saw on television. I was a freshman in college then. While I wouldn’t say that it inspired me to get involved in activism, it made me question what I saw. Was there real power in mass mobilization? Was it worth it to spend all that time in local organizing committees to get people to DC? What were folks organizing for – Black economic liberation? Black economic self-sufficiency? Attention from Democrats? What was the point if those in power wouldn’t negotiate, seemingly regardless of the size of the crowd? In effect, was Black organizing around the denial of rights and opportunity even effective anymore?
Right about the same time, the anti-globalization movement started heating up with NAFTA and FTAA protests, and I started making connections around the commodification of everything and relating it to my life (e.g. education, food, community, work). I was seeing more clearly how deeply entrenched the battles were in our everyday decision-making around our perception of how corporations and governments work to revise the historical narrative surrounding the evolution of an economic system increasingly controlled by, and benefitting, corporate elites. But that movement was led mostly by white folks who didn’t seem to me to be organizing around the denial or exclusion of their rights, or access to opportunity. It seemed like they were organizing around the preservation of their privilege from two generation perspectives. The older generation to keep good paying jobs from going overseas and preserve the American Dream, while the younger generation seemed to have this sense that the Big Bad Evil to be confronted was the nameless faceless WTO, the IMF, or the World Bank. Those weren’t targets for me. It all felt like they were organizing against the Boogeyman. It especially felt like that during the “Battle in Seattle”. Fifteen years later, I’m still scratching my head at that one. But then 9/11 essentially killed the anti-globalization movement, as the narrative quickly shifted to stopping the War in Iraq and battling the reductionist narrative of Islamic extremism.
At the end of the day, I felt like the civil rights/black empowerment/racial justice, anti-globalization, and anti-war movements were fighting against bad guys they couldn’t beat, and fighting for things they couldn’t win. I struggled with how to approach this and how to work with local groups in these movements to move beyond what I felt were their limitations. Ultimately, I felt like they weren’t listening, and so I decided that actual community organizing might make a better fit for me.
In 2004, I quit my management track job as a customs broker and took the dive to work for peanuts as an organizer. A year later, the ground level work I did canvassing began to pay off and I co-founded PUSH Buffalo in 2005.
KR: What were the most important factors for building your interest and skill as an organizer?
EW: To me, the desire to engage in some cause boils down to two basic forms of what I call “social animation”: proximal or distal animation. Meaning, you either believe you are directly affected by the problem being addressed by the cause (proximal), or you sympathize with those who are (distal). I’ve always been moved more by proximal forces than distal ones. As the old saying goes, “the political is personal”.
I’ve always been of the mind that oppression isn’t “over there” somewhere. Oppression is right here, it’s close, it’s part of people’s everyday experience. And the people who perpetuate it – the people we should target – are close enough to name, see, and touch. For example, folks who benefit from the maintenance of a system of race-based privilege should be targets if you want to dismantle racism. You don’t have to go to Ferguson, MO to find racism, nor do you have to point at the nameless, faceless criminal justice system or the bias in it. You can point to real people influencing real decision-makers that affect real people’s lives every day.
And that kind of system isn’t confined to our laws or our economy. The so-called social justice movement is plagued by unacknowledged bias and white privilege that undermine real justice. There’s a whole racial hierarchy that organizers, directors of so-called social justice organizations, and funders participate in without ever acknowledging how deeply ingrained this type of power structure is within the movement. There’s some work going on now to take a closer look at this, but we’ve lost (and are losing) lots of good organizers of color to it – whether through attrition or submission.
KR: Think about one of the successful organizing campaigns that you worked on. What were the key factors in building that campaign?
– Stories. Yours and those of the folks you work to engage. I’m pretty convinced that if people believe in the authenticity of the story of how you came to be working on a particular issue – whether through personal experience, as a witness, or as a worker at an organization that wants to build power those impacted by the problem – they’ll work with you. You can’t build a team without trust. I can’t trust you without knowing enough about you to make a judgment. I can’t know you if you don’t share. We gotta break bread. Then we can do work.
– Message. I’ve worked on some campaigns that were real “head scratchers” at first. Meaning, when we followed the trail of bread crumbs from a problem to a potential target, we scratched our heads and asked ourselves, “How are we gonna door knock this?!”. In the end, you work it out with your leaders to figure out how they’d want to have the conversation with their friends and family, then test it out and bring it back home to tweak. My sister has this method that I’ve come to adopt over the years: Think, Plan, Do, Review. She’s not an organizer in the way I am, she’s a mom with three boys. Parenting is the quintessential adaptive capacity test. I bet she uses that method at least ten times a day.
– A commitment to leadership development. I’ve tried really hard to make sure that the folks I’ve worked with could meaningfully interface with the institutions we organized around. It’s easy to “talk the talk” about leadership development. You can sit people around a table and train them on how to regurgitate the framing you’ve already done within an issue, and mash that up with their personal experience. And meetings with targets give the impression that the folks are being developed as leaders. But taking someone’s experience and worldview and giving them a new vocabulary to use to talk with a target: to show leaders how to shake their target by not only having a strong understanding of the problem/issue, but by going outside the comfort zone of the target; to translate the first face of power, public demonstration, into the second face of power, agenda setting, is where the real work of organizing happens. If you’re not intentionally building a base to develop their capacity to set the agenda, you’re building a base of tokens to exploit for your organization. You’re not building their power, you’re building either personal or organizational power.
– Staying power. I’ve also worked on campaigns that felt like they were falling apart. Leadership had fatigue, and the target just seemed unmovable. Lots of times, that means, “Pack it up”. The way the game works, most funders won’t put in for long term work. You’ve got movement building organizations writing about how they’re going to change the world in three year increments. But the problems we’re working on didn’t spring up a few years ago and won’t be solved within those timelines either. I also think that means the more obvious-media staying power. Without it, you have a hard time keeping the focus where it should be: winning your campaign. I think that’s a bit easier with social media now, but that’s a whole other blog series.
KR: You are currently working on a number of different projects around climate resilience and energy efficiency as a racial equity fellow at the Center for Social Inclusion. In general, Black communities are often excluded from decision making conversations around these issues. How do you engage Black communities into climate and energy campaigns? What is the importance of having Black leadership at the table for these conversations?
EW: I work with CSI’s Energy Democracy Project. The project works to put people of color and folks from low-income communities in the driver seat of their energy future: to be participants, decision-makers, and owners in a new energy economy.
To me, Black folks haven’t been in the dominant conversation about the climate crisis because it was always framed as “over there”: the Ozone Layer, the Rainforest, the Polar Ice Caps, El Nino, or some other thing that made the impacts really unrelatable to most low-income communities and communities of color here in the US. It’s a privilege to spend your time thinking about polar ice caps! I think we’ve also relegated the conversation to consumptive lifestyle choices (i.e. the things you buy) which are also a function of privilege. Buying a Prius, CFLs, organic vegetables, solar panels, fair trade coffee, or biodegradable shopping bags became an expression of one’s “commitment” to sustainability and by extension became an expression of one’s values. Those who made these types of purchases could extract reputational value from them and those who didn’t/couldn’t had to “prove their value” in some other way (e.g. mobilizing around related issues). And those who didn’t mobilize were just written off as hopeless through ignorance or apathy. It’s clear that communities of color and low-income communities are hit “first and worst” in the face of our climate crisis.
That’s compounded by long-standing silos in the organizing community around work that would otherwise be called “environmental justice”, from “electoral justice”, “economic justice”, “racial justice” or this or that kind of organizing. The climate crisis presents us with a unique opportunity to break down the silos and build a much more cohesive movement around our respective justice struggles. The devastation of our urban communities from intentional systemic disinvestment, the alienation from opportunity through separate and unequal education, and the impact of disproportionate criminalization of black and brown people can begin to be approached and addressed through this lens of community resilience. I think we can pretty easily engage black and brown people on these issues – and have to – if we’re going to really address the failures of our current system to create an opportunity for everyone or to address the identifiable harm the current systems has done to folks.
My work at CSI looked at the connection between substandard housing, energy insecurity, food security, and poor health outcomes for poor people as a potential wedge to get African-Americans involved in the climate resilience conversation here in Buffalo, with the intent to leverage that into statewide work with other communities in NYS. Here in Buffalo, living in the worst housing stock available because you’re poor means you usually live in a place that isn’t energy efficient and has deferred maintenance issues. That usually means you’re paying more than you can afford to heat your home and have to make tough choices to survive, like choosing between food, rent, or health related expenses. It’s a pretty vicious cycle that has all kinds of bad long-term health outcomes for children as well as adults. All this could be mitigated if we thought about poor neighborhoods as the battleground in our fight against climate change and the anchors for neighborhood economic development.
Rebuilding urban infrastructure is a climate change issue, whether you live in a coastal city or not!
KR:The Los Angeles Times and U.S. News and World Reports, among other publications, are reporting that Buffalo is going through a revival. How can Black communities be included and in the forefront of this new narrative about Buffalo?
EW: I think the narrative about Buffalo’s revival is largely overstated. That’s not to say there aren’t positive things happening. But “signature developments” like the Harbor Center, the work done transforming Canalside into a regional attraction, or investments in the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus don’t begin to scratch the surface of the kind of equitable development strategy needed to build a “better Buffalo”.
There are deep problems that will take a very long time to address structurally. You have residential segregation (85 percent of the city’s African-American residents live East of Main Street), and poverty (almost a third of the city’s population is in poverty) in an increasingly people-of-color-city (38.6 percent Black/African-American, 10.5 percent Hispanic/Latino, 3.2 percent Asian according to Census 2010 data) that has a high school graduation rate hovering around 50 percent overall. The current narrative feels more like a booster spin machine than any narrative based in reality. To say that a billion dollars from the state, a bunch of new hotels being built or a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood in Buffalo’s West Side are the hallmarks of Buffalo’s turnaround is unnerving – especially from anyone who works on the ground here. And I don’t think we can really tell a more inclusive story until we address the realities of how divided our community is and stop pretending that opportunity for some is an opportunity for all.
KR: There are a number of conversations that have been happening around the country about the decline in Black-led organizing work. What do you think has led to this perception?
EW: I’m not really sure. I see lots of Black organizing: parents trying to get their kids to and from school safely; workers trying not to be the next cliché of “last hired, first fired”; street families trying to hold blocks down; rec centers where crews form; corner stores where I buy loosies and can catch up on what’s happening today, and the bus rides on the long routes are all sites of black organizing. More importantly, there are already organizers there. They might just not think of themselves as such…and maybe we don’t either.
That said, I think the pipeline is broken. There doesn’t seem to be an easy way for people to turn their analysis and their individual struggles into more. The spirit of resistance is surfacing strongly after the miscarriage of justice in the Mike Brown and Eric Garner cases, but without a pipeline to transition expressive outrage into a power building project, I fear that won’t last very long.
The professionalization of organizing, to me, has been a bit of a double-edged sword for Black folks. I’ve appreciated becoming more explicit about what I’m trying to build, learning techniques of listening, reflection, moving to action, and building relationships. But there’s a privilege embedded in becoming a paid organizer. You see so many of the high level organizers, deputy directors or executive directors, are college educated, mostly white, predominately male. There’s a hard hill to climb – and let’s face it, a glass ceiling – for folks who don’t come packing privilege or who don’t understand how social capital is accumulated and leveraged.
That ceiling is most clearly at play in the fetishization/tokenism that comes with being a “homegrown leader” or someone with lots of “passion” that ultimately becomes a structure in itself. Battling entrenched white privilege within organizations compels people of color to be complicit within it if they’re not intentional about acknowledging inequity. This can sometimes be a form of social control in the sector. But the pay, travel, and professional development, while not great, can often be a sizable jump from poverty wage work being done in other employment.
Perhaps the outcry of the day will bring some kind of reckoning to the sector.
KR: What can we do to increase and sustain Black-led organizing work in the future?
EW: I think there needs to be a national project to invest in nontraditional social justice leadership. Why are the hallowed spaces of the movement occupied by folks who have degrees from Yale, Harvard and MIT when the base that we’re trying to build struggles to survive? It’s the height of liberal paternalism when one accumulates privilege for oneself on behalf of those whom they claim to build “power with”.
Committing to non-traditional leadership means investing in “social service to social change” pipelines again. We saw this with the Black Panther Party’s Survival Programs. They had dozens of programs that were meant to break the yoke of economic and racial oppression to facilitate deeper engagement in the struggle for liberation. We’re most familiar with the breakfast program, that later became the catalyst for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), but there were so many more.
As part of that project of building leadership, there also needs to be a commitment to “looking under the hood” of community organizing groups. We’ve spent a lot of time developing ways to measure our success in advocating for the various victories groups claim, but not nearly enough time figuring out if the democratic values that drive the base are present in the organizations that move them. That could mean anti-oppression training from credible sources that commit to not only assessment, but also to mentoring and monitoring organizational progress if needed. Multi-Cultural Organizational Development practice should be part of organizational leadership training that is woven into professional development opportunities – maybe as a benefit to affiliates of larger networks who could share the cost of such training through the dues structure. We should move away from executive-style organizational leadership as part of making sure that the relationships to money and power aren’t concentrated in one individual’s cult of personality. We can put homes run by crappy landlords or bankrupt corporations into receivership, why not so-called social justice organizations that need guidance until they can “right the ship”?
It’s time for bold strategies, critical engagement, and deep embrace of accountable, principled leadership to connect the landscape of authentic organizing in black communities and others.
We need opportunities to invest in the people we say matter the most to make a durable social change. To naively hope that the way we’re engaging in the work actually works, just won’t cut it.