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Posted - 11/19/2013
Grant Partner Spotlight: GAIA - Ananda Tan
spot_light_hi.png gaia_banner_02_1.jpeg Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) is an international alliance that works both against incinerators and for safe, sustainable and just alternatives.  Ananda Tan is GAIA's U.S. and Canada Regional Coordinator and he was recently interviewed by ITP.

ITP: You’ve been an activist on several different issues throughout your career, including forestry, anti-war, agriculture, climate, energy, trade and labor justice. How did your path lead you to become involved with GAIA?

"I first became involved in these issues back in my student days organizing around anti-war activism. In the early 1980s, grassroots activists from New Zealand banded together to organize blockades against nuclear warships coming into New Zealand’s ports. That inspired us here in Canada to do the same in the Port of Vancouver. Every time U.S. Navy ships came into the port, we’d go out with sailboats and kayaks to protest. That was my personal entry point to activism.

At the same time I was planting trees for the forest industry to put myself through school, and that led to my involvement in forest defense work. One year, on a tree-planting contract, I came across a First Nations (Indigenous community) blockade of a forestry road. They were demanding that forestry corporations end logging on their traditional land. This encounter made me think about the connectivity between social and environmental justice, human rights and land rights. Witnessing how marginalized, front-line Indigenous communities were standing up to multinational corporations to protect the land and the future of their kids inspired me to look more closely at organizing my own community of forest workers to oppose industrial systems that are threatening both people and planet.

In the 90s, I went on to work on several NGO campaigns around the world, focused on forestry, agriculture and climate issues. In all these issue areas I witnessed a critical need to build a broader narrative that included workers and front-line community activists in defining what an ecological and environmental justice vision looks like.

About eight years ago I came to the Bay Area to work on a campaign to stop financing for big fossil fuel projects. Through that work I discovered GAIA, and the amazing network of grassroots activists who are playing a huge role in stopping some of the most climate and community destructive industries around the planet. They’ve been one of the real success stories in the history of U.S. climate activism. As a grassroots network made up of largely “5-to-9 activists”, people who start their advocacy work after they get home from their day jobs at the post office, supermarkets or wherever they work, this network has successfully stopped the construction of any new incinerators across North America over the last 15 years. This is really an untold story of success, and the bulk of this success has been through local, grassroots organizing, and not through nationally funded campaigns.

"Over the last five years with GAIA, I’ve learned more about how you actually make change happen than I have in all my previous 15 years of international advocacy work."

Much of this is due to how GAIA is structured—we really seek the leadership and knowledge of our base to guide our programs. The veteran activists in our network are our leaders in terms of strategic thinking, which I think is quite different from a lot of other large environmental organizations that are more top-down and often enter communities with an eye to proselytize their own theories of change. For us it’s more about listening, facilitating and bringing multiple communities together to collectively learn about the change we need to create for the world."

ITP: In July, members of the GAIA network held a Pause to come together and create a narrative strategy to guide your work. Can you tell me more about what it was like to participate in that Pause, and how, if at all, did it differ from a regular meeting you might have had?

"Over the past 13 years, GAIA has evolved to include over 800 community groups around the world. What we’ve tried to do over the years, and often haven’t had the money to do, is to convene large gatherings in each region. The last U.S. gathering was in Detroit in 2008, and we just haven’t been able to raise funds to have another one since.

What we have been able to do is bring people together more regionally, and state-by-state to do coalition work. That’s been good, but there has been an increasing need in to have a face-to-face meeting amongst grassroots organizers in our network - to rethink how the waste incinerator industry has been developing their messaging to “greenwash” their sector and take advantage of emerging climate and energy subsidies that industries like ‘clean coal,’ nuclear and fracking are benefiting from. The incinerator industry has been securing these subsidies to both finance their existing facilities and expand their industry.

Invoking the Pause was a huge help in bringing together community-based organizers from a number of different states. A lot of these organizers are doing great work in their communities but really needed to get together to share their messaging strategies and figure out how to collectively reach out to new constituencies.

For example, in Frederick, Maryland where we held the retreat, there’s been an incinerator fight going on for the last four years. The community there is fairly conservative and rural, and the church is a major force in the community. So a big part of our discussion was around how we connect with faith-based communities. How do we build our messaging to address some of our shared values held by those communities? Similarly, how do we work better with labor groups, anti-poverty groups and social justice groups?

Another one of our goals was to connect grassroots groups in our network to national climate groups in D.C. who often don’t have relationships with people on the front-lines. That was part of the reason we held the retreat in Maryland. Following the retreat, we held a briefing for DC allies, where we had the the NAACP’s Climate and Environmental Justice Program, Physicians for Social Responsibility, Sierra Club, Earth Justice, Friends of the Earth—and about 10 or 12 other D.C.-based environmental groups attend and listen to Pause participants talk about their local front-line fights. We also organized a briefing for Congressional staff who were interested in hearing what we had to say. These encounters were successful, not only from a relationship-building perspective, but also for getting our message out to a larger audience of folks that can then incorporate our issues into some of their national policy campaigns in D.C.

The "Pause" also gave us the opportunity to practice and improve our public speaking capacity amongst the group, as we often don’t have time to do this collectively.  On the last day of our Pause, we had all the folks who were going to present in D.C. provide short five minute presentations, and then receive reflective and critical feedback from the entire group. This really allowed us to develop our presentations to be concise and clear, and to make sure that we were speaking with a unified voice."

ITP: During the Pause you did an exercise in which you had people present the issues from your opponents’ perspective and tell stories from the other side. That seems like such a useful and creative strategy that we don’t use very often. We’re motivated by our beliefs and our passion, and so it’s hard to put ourselves in the place of the opponent and tell those stories. How did you decide to do it that way, and what was that like?  

"Well, that actually has some history. In the last four years, the incinerator industries have tried to promote their model as a ‘waste-to-energy,’ to make it look like they’re turning all this waste into an alternate energy source. They’ve promoted it as being complementary to recycling efforts. In fact, they’ve convinced some national federal agencies like the EPA that energy recovery should be part of the waste management hierarchy.

Despite their multi-million dollar PR machine and lobbyists, the waste industry are rarely willing to publicly debate us on these issues. However, in 2009, when we had brought some grassroots members to testify in Congress, we were informed that coming to DC for one day out of the year was ineffective as the incinerator industry maintains a permanent lobby presence there year-round.   

So we’ve been thinking about how to sharpen our messaging and debunk their greenwash. A couple years ago we tried this exercise at a meeting, where we got a hold of some presentations that the industry had been making to various state legislatures - on why they should receive renewable energy credits. We read those out loud and pretended to be “Mr. Waste Management” and “Mr. Covanta” etc. It was a really interesting exercise because some of the immediate responses were that folks got really depressed, thinking, “how can we counter such glossy and smooth presentations from the industry?” It illustrated exactly where we were losing the PR battle in many arenas. 

So we thought we would try to drill down on that, and get people to go a bit deeper into the messaging and come up with really compelling and effective responses to these industry claims. It also allowed us to pinpoint what our allies in the climate movement most need to hear in order to delineate between industry false solutions, science and facts.

I think it’s an exercise that could be useful in many activist spheres - to help think about what top-tier messages we need to incorporate when we write a press release or provide a counter-response to our opponents."

ITP: I’ve noticed that GAIA uses the word ‘meme’ when referring to the messages that came out of your creative Pause, reflecting how the Internet has influenced your work. ITP has experienced the same thing, coming across more projects that really integrate social media and online storytelling as a key part of their structure. What are some of the changes you’ve seen as a result of this shift?

One of the challenges I see in the broader climate movement is that there’s a huge gap between young climate activists who are using Facebook, Twitter and blogs to articulate their campaigns, and veteran activists who tend to share information in more traditional ways. The veteran activists have some amazing success stories to tell about grassroots organizing, but they don’t always understand how to use social media to tell their stories. On the flip side, many online campaigners are not that well-versed on the issues themselves, or have little organizing experience. A lot of the best and brightest social media activists haven’t actually participated in any front-line fights—say, fighting a coal power plant or a waste incinerator proposal. GAIA recognizes that we have a challenge to address - how do we both enhance the capacity of grassroots organizers to access these new social media opportunities and connect them with youth organizers and groups like Many of the Pause participants were youth organizers from community groups that use Twitter and Facebook, so that was an opportunity to think about how we can expand our network capacity to share these stories from the front-line using new memes and social media infrastructure. We’re still in the process of building our capacity to bridge that gap through projects like our new Zero Waste World blog.

ITP:  Speaking of Zero Waste, here in San Francisco we have identified a goal of being a Zero Waste City by 2020. Do you think it’s going to happen? And if so, how do you think that will influence other cities and communities to do the same?

San Francisco is one of those models that we hold up as a success story for the rest of the country. It’s not a perfect model, and Recology is quite transparent about the challenges they’ve had implementing it. But they’ve produced the highest recycling rates in North America currently— presently sitting at over 80% right now. What is unique about this model is not just that it delivers the highest recycling rates and moves us away from landfills and incinerators, but that it’s built around conditions where workers and the community have ownership and control over the enterprise.

When the city of San Francisco started down this path, they had the benefit of a. access to many early zero waste thinkers and practitioners in the Bay Area, and b. labor unions and community groups whose involvement ensured that worker and community safeguards were built into the model. The lease for Recology’s recycling facility includes stipulations for both workers representation, as well as “direct hire” from the poorest neighboring communities of Bayview and Hunters Point. Recology now has over 1,000 Teamster employees who have some of the highest entry-level wages across any industry sector in the country. Their jobs start at around $22.00 an hour plus benefits, with a solid career ladder. Workers can enter as recycling sorters and work their way up to many very well-paying positions such as machine operators. The kicker to this whole story is that it’s an entirely employee-owned company, a testament to how we can develop sustainable economic models, city by city, through a business model that is designed around joint worker and community control. It clearly illustrates that by flipping the script to reorient not only the goals, but how we get there, we can deliver new economic solutions through  community-based worker collectives,. So really Zero Waste strategies are not about repairing existing systems, but about replacing entire systems to achieve real benchmarks of sustainability.

ITP: You seem to have a positive view on these issues, and yet much of the news we see about climate change is so grim. What keeps you personally motivated in the face of all the doom and gloom?

I think it goes back to what we first talked about—the fact that success at the grassroots level has been continuous through history. My day-to-day job involves talking to GAIA members and supporting their work. I learn so much from our network members that inspires me and reaffirms the belief that the leadership really lies in the grassroots. Those interactions remind me that I’m not alone, and that there are hundreds of people whose knowledge and experience I look up to, whose collective efforts have succeeded at stopping an entire industry sector. The fact that no new incinerator sites have been built in the U.S. or Canada in the past 15 years is a testament to the power of the grassroots.

What I really love doing is making connections. I had a meeting last week with a group in Minneapolis who are fighting an expansion of their waste incinerator site, and I was able to put them in touch with groups in Chicago and Detroit who can provide them with hands-on support and speak directly to their communities. When I’m able to connect people, and facilitate valuable sharing and alignment amongst front-line communities, I feel confident that our future is in good hands, amongst some amazing people whose shared sense of common cause and solidarity is going to help us win in the long haul.

Ananda Tan is GAIA's US and Canada Regional Coordinator. Ananda has been an activist, organizer and rebel-rouser for over two decades, working on anti-war, forestry, agriculture, climate, energy, trade and labor justice campaigns around the world. During this time he also planted trees and organized labor unions. Ananda is based in GAIA's Berkeley office.