Imagining a Just Transition in Western Mass Part V

Part V: Work, Education, and Conclusion

By Sarah Field

Sarah Field’s five part series on imagining a just transition in Western Massachusetts will consider housing, land, transportation, energy, food, work and education over the course of the week. This is Part V, which will cover work and education. You can read Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV. This series is published in collaboration with Covering Climate Now, a global journalism initiative by over 250 outlets to cover climate change in the lead up to the U.N. climate summit on September 23rd.

Work and Education

Work can be a site of extraction or of regeneration, of isolation or connection, and the work we prioritize and fund as a society can either contribute to the climate crisis or contribute to the creation of a just and ecologically sustainable society. One cornerstone of the Green New Deal is a significant public investment in “green” jobs. These jobs represent a divestment from extractive and carbon producing work such as that related to the fossil fuel industry, and other work that harms humanity and the planet, such as jobs in weapons manufacturing, military contracting, and the prison-industrial complex. In a just transition, the focus of labor would shift to the construction and repair of infrastructure and sustainable energy and food production systems as well as carbon-neutral jobs within economies of care, like education, health, and eldercare. The organization of labor would also shift—from extractive economic structures focused on profiting shareholders and accelerating growth, to sustainable worker-powered structures like cooperatives and unions. As Ashley Dawson writes, “[ecological restoration] is not remotely reconcilable with capitalism’s imperatives of profit maximization and growth, not to mention private ownership of the means of production.”

A shifting jobs landscape requires a shift in our educational system, to ensure that all students (especially students from historically racially and economically marginalized communities) graduate with relevant skills, competencies, and experiences, as well as a realistic understanding of (and urgency around) their role in addressing the climate crisis. Willa Sippel, the Sunrise activist, states “Everyone should be learning about the climate crisis in school—this isn’t a hobby. Climate change should be central to our public education system.” Sippel cites the large and active environmental club at Northampton High School and the passion of NHS teachers as promising examples. She explains, “Most people I know who are my age see how important this work is, and are looking to go into fields that can help, rather than jobs that will lead to personal gain.” The draft Northampton Resilience and Regeneration Plan takes climate-related education into account, proposing green job-training partnerships with Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School, Valley Community Development Corporation and the Center for EcoTechnology, and a vertically aligned K-12 curriculum that addresses “ecological stewardship, resource conservation, and climate preparedness from an early age.” To prepare students to tackle the challenges of climate change, schools should also utilize pedagogical practices that emphasize critical skills such as collaboration and creative problem-solving.

Snapshot: Wellspring Cooperative

Wellspring Cooperative is a nonprofit community development corporation that has helped to facilitate the development of a network of worker-owned cooperatives in Springfield. Wellspring currently supports three cooperatives:

  • The Wellspring Upholstery Cooperative provides commercial reupholstery services to institutions such as hospitals and schools.
  • The Old Window Workshop is a women-owned cooperative that specializes in restoring old windows.
  • Wellspring Harvest is a year-round hydroponic greenhouse that provides produce to institutions and grocery stores.

Wellspring was founded in Springfield in 2011 (the first cooperative opened in 2014) to address the lack of entry level jobs and low adult employment rates in Springfield, a city that has seen large manufacturing companies come and go. Wellspring’s cooperative model is designed to make it possible for community members to build power, wealth, and economic stability through worker ownership. The nonprofit development organization has leveraged relationships with anchor institutions such as hospitals, schools, and universities, to harness the purchasing power of these institutions as clients for the cooperatives.

While Wellspring was designed with a focus on economic justice and building local worker power, it is no coincidence that Wellspring’s cooperatives are focused on environmentally sustainable industries. Fred Rose, one of Wellspring’s co-directors, states that the cooperatives are dedicated to an environmental and social mission that includes restoring and repairing rather than throwing materials away. Rose says, “We are focused on local jobs and local resources—on using what we have already.” This means doing work that keeps materials out of landfills and reduces the ongoing purchase and replacement of furniture and windows. It means growing local food and developing efficient local distribution channels for this food. It also means nurturing the capacity of local people to do meaningful work, run businesses, and reap the profits from that work, rather than ignoring the people already living in a community and looking to gentrification for economic development. Wellspring is countering a culture of disposability, and building a culture of people power and regeneration.

Processes for Transitioning

How we conceptualize a problem impacts how we try to solve it. We cannot address the immensity of the climate crisis without addressing the economic and social structures that created it. Movement Generation organizer Michelle Mascarenhas-Swan says:

“True climate justice requires that the system change, not the climate. We can’t just look up into the atmosphere and count carbon, we have to look down at the places we live and count exploitation. It is actually the theft of land—and the resources required to meet our own needs as people—that allowed this system to force our bodies into shit jobs that our people never wanted to do, to destroy the places we love and the places others love. Economy is the crisis—it is not a separate crisis of an economic crisis over here and a climate crisis over here.”

A just transition, locally and globally, is not about implementing a set of top-down strategies. In order to build a livable world and mitigate climate change, we need to redistribute wealth and resources, create inclusive and democratic movements, and shift the ways we live our lives and relate to one another. And we all need to take action. As Marty Nathan states, “Everybody has a skill to offer this massive movement. The best treatment for anxiety and depression is getting together and getting to work.” Willa Sippel, of Sunrise, emphasizes the possibilities and opportunities in making the transitions we need. “We all need to be working on climate,” she says, “But I’m excited about the future we’re going to build.”

 

Sarah Field is a person who likes trees, dogs, and snacks. She lives in Northampton. Artwork by Anya Klepacki, whose show “If the Future of This World Can’t Be Depended On, I’ll Make My Own” was featured in The Shoestring earlier this year.


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