Sunday, February 21, 2010

Time to wake up

It's now a year since the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was past, and it has become an interesting political game piece of late. I'd like to not focus on the efforts of the right to distract deficit-conscious voters into believing what a mistake this spending spree has been and instead draw attention to work the still lies ahead. I'm no economist, but I believe we have a ways to go before we get out of this 'recession.'

I did not chime in with any personal critique of Obama's first year in office, but I would have said (and I know you will believe me) is summarized in sentiments expressed by Jon Stewart during a conversation with Bill O'Reilly of all places and by a memo in the Guardian UK by Clacny Sigal. My first thought on Obama's first year was that he came in expecting a coalition to move underneath him - that the swath of new voters would be energized to mobilize the range of initiatives on which he campaigned and thereby float Congress to meet those demands with legislation. There were two shortcomings on this: Congress and the public did not quite know what to do with Obama leadnig by proxy so to speak as opposed to leading with a strong executive hand (where Jon Stewart states 'that Obama came into office acting as if Congress were an equal branch of government'), but simultaneously, those who voted for Obama were all sitting back waiting for all these great initiatives to happen instead of hitting the pavement and being an active participant in the change that needs to happen. I believe if we go back and reread Obama's inaugural address, he stated then and there that this is going to take a lot of work. As a friend of mine pointed out, he also said hold him accountable, but he definitely said that the work was not his alone to accomplish. And this is the point that Sigal makes - those of us on the ground have not done out part.

Though I'm not often a fan of everything Thomas Friedman has to say, he is onto something this week. I like his notion of nation building at home - and it is definitely time for that. Our economy has shifted drastically, and the days of manufacturing and mass exports from the US are gone. A look at North Carolina alone reveals that manufacturing has moved not only out of state, but out of country. The push for reforming health care (still overdue), education and our energy demand is right on, and we all play a role in this.

So consider this some call to action: encourage health care reform so dislocated workers may actually venture to start their own business: there are numerous programs to help folks do so, except health care is not covered. Hound our Congressional folks to do their jobs, Republicans and Democrats alike, in helping the people of this country, beyond just their district or state, get back on their feet by passing an additional stimulus package that would genuinely create jobs, boost the emerging economy of tomorrow, and get capital flowing through the system again. And finally, always remember that your money is a form of your voice - supporting local businesses keeps that money local, even if it costs a little extra.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Offshore oil, green economy, and jobs

Last week at the Emerging Issues Forum, the Governor talked about the creative will of the people to survive through difficult times, and reiterated her push for 'jobs, jobs, jobs and more jobs.' One of the initiatives she mentioned was getting the off-shore exploration for oil as well the pilot wind power farm to be set in the sound.

I have a question about this: what kind of jobs will oil exploration in NC create? what kind of jobs will that industry sustain here? Is this simply an effort to keep us continuing on with the status quo of energy use in industries and workplaces and homes? I won't even ask about the cost - both in straight financial terms and in secondary environmental degradation. I'd like to know the details on the number and type of jobs to be created through this endeavor. Anyone who can direct me to research and projections on this, I appreciate it.

I simultaneously ask my geologist friends to objectively state the case for how much oil may be off the North Carolina coast. I cannot imagine there's much more than what would fuel the equipment to find it, making it a wash at best. If I'm wrong, please direct me to research that shows otherwise.

Meanwhile, I ask what kind of jobs can be created by redirecting those resources towards developing more carbon-neutral technology such as solar panels and home-based wind turbines. I know there are criticisms that solar technology is too expensive, so I challenge here that now is the time to find out if there are less expensive means to harness the energy of the sun - that sound like job creation to me. When you add gardening and a greater self-reliance on local goods and services (not even to mention passive technologies, like constructing a simple solar food-dryer - which I would challenge could be built into supplemental heating units for homes), this is a whole package for how families can stretch their budget out: what I like to call economic fortitude as opposed to economic development. It's kind of like technology working backwards.

Monday, February 15, 2010

thoughts on jobs - a participatory exercise

With the Senate moving on a jobs bills, which is great and frankly overdue, they will help create 95,000 jobs a month across the country. That translates to 1,900 for each state (if evenly distributed which is unlikely), and 22,800 jobs over a year in each state. Keep in mind that in December 2009 the country witnessed 85,000 lost jobs in just the one month. Here in North Carolina, December 2009 figures reveal there are 491,578 unemployed. Roughly 5% will get jobs with this plan after 12 months. Quite simply, that's not enough. We need to do a lot more to get folks back to work.

Here are some ideas to kick around. Yes, most of these ideas will immediately raise the question of 'how do you pay for that?' and I would appreciate your insight and strategies on how we answer to that question. No real logical order to these, though some may be connected.

* Do extensive asset mapping at the community level. Identify residents, young and old, employed or unemployed, and all the skills that are present - plumbing, electrical, mechanic, banking, did you sing in the high school or church choir, creative cooks, good picture-taker, even good graffiti artists. This can be done by individuals from various backgrounds or experience, and would be ideally done in a fairly short time frame. Share the map in a GIS fashion in which the information is communicated to folks who seek it (or should be referring to it).

* Local farms to school lunches. This is a monster, but let me set up my argument for the urgency in this way: we have been very dramatically, and somewhat silently, losing family farms - or even small-scale farms (this is disproportionately the case for black farmers). Simultaneously, we also know that food provided at schools are, in general, not fresh, unbalanced, high in sodium and fats. Instead of schools paying some food distributor to drop off cases of cans of foods, does it not seem better for the local economy AND the health of our school kids for the schools to purchase food grown in the region? Now, I know this means increasing the school budget, but are our kids not worth the investment? and our local food producers worth supporting? The current set up is a double tragedy and frankly I believe this kind of fix is way past time. And yes, I realize this means schools will need more cooks/food prep - but guess what: there are folks who need jobs.

* Strengthening PTA's. This is something I need some more feedback on how it will work, but I list it here because of one major fact, and a minor detail caused by the recession. The major fact here is that our schools are failing our kids. No disrespect to the teachers out there who are working their butts off, but our schools have trimmed curricula so they only learn the basics, very little art - and the style of learning in which kids only fill bubble sheets and memorize brief passages: I may be oversimplifying, but there needs more extracurricular opportunities for kids to experience and grow beyond math, English, basic sciences, and recreation. This is something that unemployed community members may assist in some way - mentoring, helping around the schools, establishing and helping maintain a school garden (complete with composting), telling stories of the community - or personal histories (think Story Corps or Studs Terkel). I sort of envision this as a widespread asset building strategy similar to what is going on in Lenior County. The community organizers/leaders who did the asset mapping can help integrate key players into the schools.

* Community festivals. This may not get people to work directly, but it would serve as a localized public works project through social entrepreneurship - neighbors stepping up to highlight their community and the people in it. Show off the talents in the neighborhood. Invite town/county leaders, businesses, neighboring communities to attend. Such a festival would provide that creative outlet for the students of schools connected to the above idea of the PTA's. Most importantly, though, this would catalyze reinvestment from the ground up. {Note: this is an idea inspired from the Emerging Issues Forum last week - a great comment about the event is here}

* Weatherization and housing rehab. We know the hardest hit sector has been the construction sector. There are stimulus funds to help folks make their houses more energy efficient with insulation. Hire crews of unemployed individuals to install these home improvements. Not only provides some jobs but will help those families that receive the improvements stretch out their family budgets.

* Pre-fabricated homes for Haiti. I cannot find the article, but a work colleague alerted me to a design that some folks at NCState have for a solid build-it-yourself house (think of buying a house from Ikea) that would serve the people displaced by the Earthquake in Haiti. Parts would need manufacturing to certain specs (again, putting those construction folks to work), and then transported to Haiti where the NCState folks can train Haitians how they are built, who may then subsequently gather work teams among the displaced families to construct those homes. Probable funding from USAID. This would likely be temporary, but a very beneficial product while also getting people back to work.

* Temporary stormwater treatment. With the establishment of strict nutrient-loading in the Jordan Lake watershed, the towns and municipalities in the watershed have a pressing public works project to address their stormwater treatment. I suggest a sort of middle ground in which some unemployed folks construct a sort of mobile, temporary treatment device, like a sandbag, only it's filled with crushed rock and cement and maybe textiles. These bags can be placed strategically and treat x-number of inches of rain, and then may be simply rotated out with a new one (the one removed may be flushed out responsibly and reused). {and think about it, those shipments of pre-fab homes to Haiti can bring back cement and debris}

* Reclaiming the kitchen sink. Between the clunkers that were so widely traded in last year and the proposed program to trade in old appliances for new, energy-efficient ones, there must be something that can be done with the old materials to be reclaimed into something useful in the future economy. I have a crazy vision (obviously, I have many, but I'll stick to one right here) that such materials can be useful in someway in either solar panels or home-based wind turbines.

Allow me to go back to the idea of the schools hiring more kitchen staff to prepare fresh food. I was in a meeting several years ago in a community looking to obtain improved wastewater services, and when the topic of decentralized systems came up that would require management, the county utilities staff member present said 'I don't know about that, I don't think we have the staff' to which I immediately said, 'well, I think there are a lot of underemployed people up here, so I think we can easily fix that.' So I ask each of you to help me out on this: if you hear someone say 'we don't have staff' or 'we need more staff to...' or some variation of that, make note of that - where it was, in what context it was said, the kind of job not being done for lack of that staff... and let's see if we can compile a list of those places and get some people connected.

So let's get these ideas expanded and fleshed out. Are they idealistic? You bet. Realistic? I challenge you that they are, at least in part of each of these ideas. I am soliciting feedback and guidance and help with this, but I ask that you not tell me what boundaries or barriers there are, but instead tell me what we have to get past those.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

My favorite albums of the decade

In the spirit of listing ‘the best of…’ at the close of one decade and reading some of the lists made by others, I figured I’d sit down with my own collection and make my own list. This is purely my own, and is very subjective – I didn’t measure this according to most played, highest rating, number sold, etc., but I can tell you this: each of these albums hits a certain part of me any time I listen. It might energize me, pump me up, relax me, provide a nostalgic escape, stir up tears, get me dancing, and even inspire me to sing along. I stopped at five and these are not necessarily in order - in considering others, and there are many good ones, I realized these five stood out on a top tier to themselves.

Bluerunners' Honey Slides

Honey Slides is perfect, though probably not for everyone. Cajun, zydeco… plenty of guitar, accordion and steel pedal, the songs on this album are as good all together as a fried catfish smothered in crawfish etoufe complete with a whiskey sour on the side.

The Bluerunners have officially hung their instruments up except for playing an occasional event in and around Lafayette – they are, in fact, a scheduled performer at Festival International de Louisiane this year. It is worth me expressing here that Festival International is the best music festival in this country, period.

Ali Farka Toure Savane

The opening notes of Savane strike a thrill of potential energy - when the harmonica comes in, you realize the familiarity of this music, of what set Ali’s music apart, is how he has pieced together known environs in a comfortable way you had yet experienced.

Konono No. 1 Congotronics Vol. 1

Congotronics Vol 1, Crammed Discs named this album to expose the wonderful resourcefulness that is Konono No. 1. Amplified with used parts from cars and other such abandoned equipment, they weave incredible beats and rhythms with traditional instruments, vocals, and homemade percussion. Raw energy.

Steve Earle Jerusalem

The liberal’s get-up-and-go catalyst, Steve Earle lets his frustrations out in a time when questioning authority was frowned upon as unpatriotic. He packs a punch here, and whether one agrees or not with his lyrics, many of these songs have remained relevant years after he wrote them.

M Ward Hold Time

One problem I’ve always with such lists as this is a combination pull of the recent, but here I am placing on my own list this album that came out in the spring of 2009… but this is one of those albums that captured me upon my first listen. It’s warm, it’s playful, it’s thoughtful, happy, sad… it’s just good.

Rural Sidewalks

A young woman rode her bike down her long driveway and across the street to get her mail out of the mailbox when a car going way too fast on this flat country road straight-away hit her. Reports say she flew 20 feet. The driver never saw her.

I learned of these unfortunate incidents in Hollister through a conversation with a gentleman whose mother’s house lies on that very road. He explained to me that another kid had been killed in a one-car accident on the same stretch of road – was driving too fast and lost control. The road is flat and straight here, and many logging trucks will use it as a short cut to Hwy 43. That same day, I saw two kids three different times in the day walking this mile-plus stretch of road to the county line, dribbling a basketball in the middle of the road. It is not a busy road.

A couple months later, I was an effort here in Carrboro to garner support to make Estes Drive safer for pedestrians and bikers. The road in question has a sign at the railroad track welcoming traffic the Town of Carrboro – ‘Bicycle friendly.’ I can attest that the fast-moving vehicles cause an unsettling feeling when walking just a 50-foot stretch of this road.

The town would need several million dollars to accommodate the widening that bike lanes and sidewalks would require, let alone widening for increased vehicular traffic demand on this arterial connector between Chapel Hill and Carrboro. NC DOT could accommodate funding such a project, but not for several years. Feeling among town leadership is that town residents would not support funding a bond to do the work on an expedited timeframe despite the groundswell of attention to the issue.

I do not know the number of injuries or fatalities on Estes. One night upon leaving my friend’s house near Estes, we were unsettled by the police and emergency vehicles having closed the road to one lane of traffic. When we get through, we both rubberneck to appease the curiosity as to what happened. We see a car, unscathed, pulled onto the grass shoulder of the road. And we see a bicycle.

These two communities are quite distinct from each other, yet have a similar need. Obviously, drivers already do not pay attention to the speed limits established. The urban setting of Carrboro is more likely to get more attention, more political will, to make changes to the various transportation needs. The situation in Hollister is both dampened and amplified by its setting where the community is smaller, rural, and reliant on motorized vehicles, but where each life has a greater impact.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

gift of karaoke

Memory is a funny thing: a conversation years ago gets moshed, images vivid but so specific. Prior to the holidays, I had in my head a conversation I had with a friend - a connection made through work, but a very special person. She is from a community just outside of Beaufort that we had been working with to get improved wastewater services. That effort has yet to successfully get those services to the community, but that will be the subject of another blog post.

It was between Thanksgiving and Christmas and I was down visiting Mary to plan a meeting with the county manager, and we met for lunch. Over lunch we shared our plans for the upcoming holidays. She was most notably sharing the gift she had gotten her son: a karaoke machine that's available at Wal Mart. "That's what he really wants. I asked him if he's sure, if he's really going to use it, and he said 'definitely.' I know that in a few months he will probably put it in the back of his closet and not touch it again. I don't like getting him things he won't use, but he said he really wants it..." She went on to talk about getting him from basketball practice in time to see the Christmas parade. "I'll probably stop at McDonald's and get him something, as long as he doesn't have much homework. It's his little reward."

This is somehow, to me, a quintessential snapshot of life in America. A household in which both parents work: she is staff at the hospital and he is a truck-driver. The son in 8th grade plays football and basketball, does alright in school. Christmas gifts are a big deal in that they want to give the kids something they want. They plan a family vacation each summer, most often around visiting family - that next summer was planned a big trip to Disney World. And the indulgence of stopping by McDonald's on occasion after practice.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

step back in time

I end up talking to a gentleman last Saturday outside his home at the end of a worn-out dirt road. His house was one that I had already noticed reminded me images from documentaries of Appalachia during the origins of the Tennessee Valley Authority. Slight of build and subtlely sunken eyes shrouded by life-filled crow's feet that give him a perma-grin, he greeted me. His well and outhouse in the back yard were clearly visible from the side of the house where he met me. How old is this house? I asked, to which he said 'oh, goodness, this house? I don't know - it's old.' and goes on to explain he was born and raised in that house, and he's now 80 years old. He retrieved his daughter from inside to help answer the question, though. She, too, was slight of build, and though did not look old, she looked like time had not been as kind as her face was absent her father's smile. Given the impression she, too, lived in the house, I asked how many lived in the house, to which they both answered at the same time, so I missed the details: something like a sister, twins and two grandchildren to make for 8 people in the house. The man smiled and nodded with pride. He continued to tell me about working at the sawmill back in the day, and while telling me, I couldn't help but notice the child, about three years old, inside the house who had climbed on a chair to reach up and run his finger along the window pane.