Lead image of protesters protesting the Pet Coke Piles on southeast side of Chicago. Image found on the Public Lab Chicago page.
Passion alone is not enough - we need to be great organizers
Thanks to Olga Bautista for the title of this blog post, please read on for the transcript of my interview with her.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Public Lab’s relationships with community organizers and local grassroots environmental groups. Over the years, there have been a number of people and groups who have put “boots on the ground” and conducted local environmental research projects. Many of them have worked to create physical space and events in their community for Public Lab gatherings. Yet the stories of their work come back to the broader Public Lab community through word of mouth rather than through these activists directly engaging with online spaces. Ultimately, in my opinion, if we’re seeking Public Lab to become a space for people to collaborate on and publicize their environmental projects, these on-the-ground people are who we should be thinking of and creating both our in person and our online spaces for. I want to start learning more deliberately from some of these community organizers about what is working, what could be better, and how can we amplify the things that they want to be heard.
To kick off this exploration, I had a phone call with Olga Bautista. I’ve known Olga for about a two years. She is a rock star community organizer. She (and Benjamin Sugar) were the driving forces behind the second Regional Barnraising in Chicago. For years now, she and her group, Chicago Southeast Side Coalition To Ban Petcoke, have been working to fight the petroleum coke piles in their community that sit directly in their neighborhood and on the Calumet River. Due in large parts to their activism and efforts, these piles were just recently moved from their community.
It had been a while, so I wanted to catch up, hear what has been going on, how they’ve been doing, and see if I could explore some of the questions I’ve been having about the Public Lab space with her. Below is an excerpt of our conversation. Olga was kind enough not just to give me some advice about the questions I’ve been floating around, but to really give me a low-down on things that have been useful for her on an organizing level in the past year as well. Thanks Olga! Here’s the transcript:
Olga Bautista, of the Southeast Environmental Task Force and the Southeast Chicago Coalition to Ban Petcoke. (Photo by Terry Evans / Courtesy of Museum of Contemporary Photography)
How have things been going?
Things are changing for the better, but we need more people, and we need to be intentional about building more leaders who can take on more of the work. It’s important that we’re deliberate in who makes the decisions. We don't want the big greens or other advocacy groups to speak for us because we know exactly what would make our lives better.
What are some of the challenges you have been facing lately?
It’s complicated figuring out who are the other players on the playing field and plowing through anyway. It’s also hard to not get discouraged. There are a lot of groups who work on the issue, people who break off forming other groups, and we end up competing with others who are working on the same issue.
What are some of the things that have been important in your successes?
It’s really important to plan and evaluate everything. For example, before meetings we talk about what we want to achieve, after we talk about what has been decided and we check in with everyone about how they feel it went. We’ve been starting to use this methodology that really centers us and we have been doing things this way for about a year. It's organized, and it has helped us work hard and be really intentional about everything we do.
Some of the things we practice are that:
We make a point to sync up in the beginning and at the end of every meeting, to see how we feel about the work we did. We have a vibe watcher at our meetings, when you have that kind of order, it makes everyone feel comfortable that they're getting heard. We’re also really well prepared before meeting. Leaders will set the agenda ahead of time and send out materials. Everyone is expected to have reviewed everything prior to coming to the meeting.
It’s really professional. We’re grassroots organizers in a working class community, and we’re really figuring this out and it’s working.
What has been challenging for you?
Some of the things in my case that have been difficult, are things like managing time and calendars. We have so many different challenges, linking them up and planning time to reflect on the work that we're doing is tough. I'm not able to carve out enough time for this. It's easier for me to go to a meeting than carve out time in front of a computer. Because I’m a mom, I’ve got these other responsibilities and pressing things that take up my time.
Another challenging thing is that if you're an organizer that lives in an affected community, it’s different than if you live in a different neighborhood. If you live somewhere else you can separate out your life. I run into people just going to the grocery store, people who ask me questions about emails or who get mad and are violent to me about the work I do with the coalition, and I’m just trying to pick up a jug of milk!
How has your work and relationship been with Public Lab?
With Public Lab, I talk about you guys all the time. All your ears should be ringing, because it's part of the message. Public Lab is an extremely important part of the petcoke fight. Balloon mapping was absolutely important. To see everyday people get together and gather this extremely important data without having to get in a plane. We literally had an entourage following us sometimes.
As a community organizer, what are some things you need or look for when you start to work with other groups or organizations?
One group I’ve been working with lately that has helped a lot with some of these community trainings had stipends for me to do a week long organizer training. This made a huge difference. I’m looking for support in things like grant writing, and groups who collaborate with other agencies and foundations who might be able to help us fund the work.
What’s coming up for you in the near future?
In the next three weeks, we’re working to develop a door knocking campaign. It’s something we haven't done since we started, but we really want to do this again. We need to find new leaders. We need to figure out who is serious, have a plan for those people to go to training and learn about things like structural racism, and structural oppression. These are ideas that we know and feel their affects everyday. Some people just don't know there is a name for it.
What would tell others who are just getting into Environmental Justice issues and community organizing?
There are so many things to learn and practice:
1) Skills to be efficient and effective are not just common sense, you need co-conspirators in your group who are on the same page and you need to practice those skills.
2) Nobody told me that the work is based so much on relationships. You have to develop relationships with people. I’m doing a lot of one-on-ones now, which some of us get trained on. Things like: when you meet someone for the first time, you don't end the conversation with an ask. Those are some of the things we have been learning.
3) It’s slow process and can't be rushed. This is difficult for me. We have deadlines. We have comment periods coming up, having regular expectations of each other that we need to accomplish. I always have feelings like I’m not able to follow through or i’m not depending on other people enough.
4) Getting the people on the same page with you that's difficult, that's the relational part. People have to take on the work fully. Everyone I talk to, they have to do it for themselves, not for me.
5) People on the ground, we need to have exit plans for things that we are committed to that are not going anywhere and take things off our plate instead of put things on.
-- End transcript --
I learned so much from this conversation with Olga. I’ve been really inspired by the work she does and what the group has been able to accomplish. While I can start to see some future directions come out of this conversation on the questions I had, I don’t want to jump to conclusions until I have a few more conversations and things to draw from. I would l love to hear if you have ideas on this topic, or if you know anyone I should share this conversation with. Let me know who in the comments below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Looking forward to it!