A New Gas Tank and Central Resonator

I settled into my seat at the mechanic’s waiting room, excited to be productive during a long repair. I brought my laptop and books, including Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed – a sci-fi story about an anarchist, egalitarian planet and a neighboring classist, non-democratic one.  A women sitting near me in the waiting room explained that she needed to turn on the waiting room TV. She was anxious to get information about a nuclear plant accident that happened that morning in France.

To [Shevek], a thinking man’s job was not to deny one reality at the expense of the other, but to include and connect.

I shared the coincidence that today was the start of the 3-day court case, Entergy vs. State of Vermont. Entergy, which owns the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant about 10 miles from where we were sitting, is suing Vermont, because the State says it has the right to deny the nuclear power plant from running after 2012, when its operating license ends. Entergy says the State doesn’t have the power to prevent a plant from operating. Only the Nuclear Regulatory Commission can say if a plant can renew its license, and the NRC always say YES.

You can’t crush ideas by suppressing them. You can only crush ideas by ignoring them. By refusing the think, refusing to change.

Before you knew it, three of us sitting in the waiting room were discussing the dangers of Vermont Yankee, how the news doesn’t report local environmental problems or even Japan’s nuclear problems any more -and still barely any mention of the French plant accident. We talked about media ownership, how there really needs to be a clear plan for new jobs if/ when the nuclear plant is closed. How should our region and country produce its energy anyway? How much energy do we need?

We [on Anarres] have nothing…but each other. Here [on Urras] you see the jewels, there we see the eyes. And in the eyes you see the splendor, the splendor of the human spirit.

How exciting, how rare to talk real issues with strangers at a car repair shop waiting room!  I am reminded that I need these conversations to engage with these energy issues, to stay connected to the questions. The questions we ask together are points of entry, and I feel the possibility of collecting the information I need to make informed opinions and proposals.

Because our women and men are free –possessing nothing they are free. And you the possessors are possessed.  You are all in jail. Each alone, solitary, with a heap of what he owns. You live in prison, die in prison. It is all I can see in your eyes –the wall, the wall! 

One woman leaves, wishes us well. I ask for the name of the other woman who still sits in the waiting room, wondering to myself whether we could launch well-facilitated dialogues about climate change and energy in our region.

The woman has mentioned Navajo reservations once or twice. She tells me she writes books and a blog about Native American adoption –a historical approach. She is fairly new to Greenfield and finds people here to be smart. I imagine contacting her.

A few days later my neighbor Sarah is over and talking about her experiences getting arrested in D.C. protesting the Tar Sands pipeline. The organizing around that issue (building a perilous pipeline to transport oil down from Canada and across the U.S., having already harmed First Nation communities at the drilling sites) has been exemplary. Sarah and her partner Woody, looking for a way to keep engaging with climate and energy issues close to home, went to several vigils and protests about the trial between Entergy and the State of Vermont.  The morning the trial started Woody said the streets were lined with people supporting Vermont’s right to close the nuclear plant.

“The saint is never busy.” –Odo  

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Solidarity as a Spiritual Practice

All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church, Greenfield, MA

My sermon is about solidarity as a spiritual practice.  Solidarity, a word that connotes unions and public activism is becoming my primary spiritual and intimate vow, and I’d like to share some of my journey to and through this vow. I‘m intrigued by the blurring of the political and the intimate –and the possibility that my spiritual and activist practices are in fact the same.

I learned how to dowse with dowsing rods about 15 years ago.  I’ve dowsed my way to many experiences and people. And now I’ve dowsed my way to this practice of solidarity –and my rods are quivering, so I’ve started to dig deep. I’m seeking luminous water.

My vow

I first started mulling over the meaning of solidarity in a spiritual context when I made formal vows to uphold the Buddhist precepts about 4 years ago.

Some of you are likely familiar with the general outline of the 10 Buddhist precepts –they are not so different from Judeo-Christian and Islamic commandments and other spiritual ethics. They include prohibitions on stealing, being stingy, lying, speaking badly or blaming others, getting angry, misusing sexuality, and using intoxicants.

I had a marvelous period of studying the precepts with my fellow practitioners. We spent a month studying each precept from multiple angles.

When we had a public ceremony to make our vows to these precepts, we also made 4 additional commitments which we had barely discussed. These 4 commitments come from the Council for a Parliament of World Religions and concern worthy things like equality between men and women, non-violence, tolerance and truthfulness, and, the one that most caught my attention, sustaining a culture of solidarity.

Let me step back for a second and give some context to these 4 commitments: In 1993, faith leaders from 40 spiritual traditions tried to see if they could agree on an interfaith global ethic and they succeeded, arriving at these 4 commitments that have since been signed and adopted by thousands of global religious leaders and congregations. I suspect for many congregations, they are something of an ethical appendix that remains more or less unexamined, as they were for us.

During my precept ceremony, I was fine making these 4 global interfaith commitments but knew I still needed to define for myself  the meaning of “a culture of solidarity.” I am protective of words like solidarity –and want to be true to their full power and not water them down- solidarity is a big commitment. Putting the group before the self, or even better dissolving the boundaries between the group and self. This commitment also seems like a rich portal for exploring the very nature of the bodhisattva path, the path of ending the suffering of others, and understanding the elusive phrase, collective awakening.  I had a feeling solidarity would point me somewhere I needed to go. And so I embarked on learning what solidarity means and on better understanding how I can fulfill my commitment to it.

Gestures and meanings of solidarity –gleanings

When I hear the word solidarity, union songs come to mind, “Union Maid,” in particular. “I’m sticking with the union…till the day I die.”

More recent images also flood me: Argentinean workers taking over factories and turning them into worker co-ops, as chronicled in the fabulous documentary “The Take.” Or Liberian Muslim and Christian women led by Leymah Gbowee, one of the women who got this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, coming together and saying no to war lords who were recruiting boy soldiers and raping and doing unimaginable violence and corruption. Working together, these women were a powerful and ultimately successful force of resistance. I learned about their movement in a documentary I recommend highly called “Pray the Devil Back to Hell.”

Solidarity is clearly about building the power of those who have not had power.

Solidarity also refers to the emotional quality that emerges when working closely with others towards a focused goal of collective power. Love happens, what is referred to in the Brazilian Landless Movement as mistica. This emotional quality, this mistica, circulates and mobilizes people and inspires humility and courage. It is a key part of the energy that makes this work so worthwhile.

*

When the Occupy Movement first emerged, I saw cardboard signs and heard people say that they are “in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street.” This is a nice way for people to offer support, saying: We see you! We agree with you! We’ll send socks!

And yet I found myself initially feeling separate when I spoke this way-as if Occupy Wall Street was THERE in New York and I was HERE in Greenfield–I felt separation, and didn’t know how to really feel Occupy in my body. The solidarity I want is not peripheral, it is center. It is a practice of being. I am fed by connecting to Occupy, which to me is a huge rhizome-like circle of solidarity.  I AM Occupy. When I claim this, I light up a point on the circle. I expand the circle. I don’t put myself in a secondary role but rather step up, sustaining this big huge circle. Though of course I see that there is a time and a place for more local circles, a time to send socks. Now I know that I can do this more powerfully when I offer solidarity from a place of center, not periphery. When I AM Occupy,  my whole being lights up and affects my posture!

*

I have studied puppetry for a few years–puppeteers are taught to pay attention to essential gestures of a character. If solidarity were a character, it would include some of these gestures – a black power fist; the gesture of arms linked in a chain. Also offering bread on two open hands, providing the material support for those who are on the frontline. I want to suggest still another gesture, two hands cupped like parentheses making a circle that has an opening.  A circle that is created through truth telling and trust-building practices of communication. I have experienced this form of solidarity in council practice, which I will speak more about shortly.

These varied gestures raise an interesting question about solidarity –is solidarity an inherently separating and divisive practice, for instance, separating the 99% from the 1%?  I’ve heard a few people say they are sad about the oppositional energy of the Occupy Movement, preferring a movement for the 100%. Can we have practices that challenge unequal power and yet are fundamentally about connection and integration and widening the circle? I think we can –especially if the intention is set.

This is why many of us return again and again to study social movements rooted in deep religious practices –African American Civil Rights for one. And Gandhi’s anti-colonial movement in India.

Solidarity is power in the service of love.  Solidarity means working to make a group powerful with the intention of shifting the very nature of power.  It is a classic deconstruction. Strengthen the weaker part of the power dynamic in order to dismantle the dynamic entirely. I think Occupy has held this balance and this intention brilliantly. Of course there are many aspects of Occupy. But, I see a lot that moves in this direction of collectively naming the NO and enacting many YESES. There is a recognition of power –deeply entrenched institutional habits of control- and there is also an intention to create new systems of working together. Systems that for the most part are infused with gift-giving, democracy, and inclusion. They are powerful to experience, and they inspire mistica.

*

I have another association in the context of solidarity that just won’t go away.  It goes back to my first experience of hearing a real sermon –it wasn’t in a church, it was in a university classroom 20 years ago. A professor spoke and for the first time I felt my world had been named.   She spoke about the lines between the intimate and political. She spoke about truth telling –and the way North American girls start to disconnect from what they know at adolescence. And most adults conspire in this to perpetuate a disconnected culture. Adults for the most part do not make a safe space for voice, and so voices goes into hiding.  In the absence of resonance, voice recedes into silence. The professor was Carol Gilligan, and this work is beautifully described in her book, The Birth of Pleasure. Her more recent book is called Joining the Resistance and is about the importance of listening and speaking in ways that allow for truth telling –I find this work so powerful. It links democracy and love. Gilligan says voice and relationship are antidotes to personal and cultural disassociation.

I see this as relevant to the practice of solidarity, because it is a practice of love – coaxing someone’s truth out into a space where it can be held with care. And sharing our truths. Truth telling is inherently relational. And we surely need the full force of relationship to resist power abuses and to develop healthy new worlds.

Meditation-Occupation

I want to tell a personal story that embodies my current practice and understanding of solidarity. It’s a story about creating power in service of love and about a space and technique of truth telling and relationship.

Almost every Saturday I sit on the Greenfield Common at noon for Meditation-Occupation, one of the projects loosely affiliated with Occupy Franklin County.  A group of us started showing up for this regularly in October and without making any kind of formal commitment, we just keep showing up week after week, regardless of weather.

Yesterday was a typical scene from the past few winterish months -to avoid the cold ground, eight of us pile onto the picnic bench. This week we left our usual bench on the border of the street to sit at the bench that is in the center of the common, under the eagle’s wings and the marble obelisk. We huddle close. Lance is our timekeeper, keeping an eye on the Greenfield Savings Bank digital clock. We sit in silence for 30 minutes, signs propped against us that say Occupy Everywhere! We are Geenfield’s 99%. One No, Many Yeses.

The wind is fierce, signs are flying. One flies right back up into Jeff’s hands. We sit exposed and together. Even sitting cross-legged on top of the picnic table I feel grounded. My legs are wrapped in my sleeping bag. I become bigger than me. I am an eight person being on that bench. There is warmth even if we aren’t physically touching.  I have a deep feeling of mistica, that emotional quality of solidarity.

After we sit in silence for 30 minutes, we shift into a circle and do council.  The Arts Block Café kindly offers us a table for this so we’ll be out of the wind this week. Council practice means speaking and listening from the heart –not speaking back to one another, not needing to agree, but sharing our voices. Each week our theme for our council is simply “meditation occupation.”   We use my bracelet as a talking piece, and we lean back and make a resonating chamber between us.

Conclusion

While I value all the Buddhist precepts –my commitment to help create and sustain a culture of solidarity is my primary vow and practice.   As with any vow, I fall short often. And I return to it, just as I return to my breathe when I get lost in thoughts during meditation.

I vow to help create a culture of solidarity. In my lineage, we say after making a vow: Will you maintain it? Will you maintain it? Will you maintain it? Yes. I love the repetition, the deepness of what it is to make a vow. I vow to create a culture of solidarity.

And this is how I maintain it:

Meditating –building concentration, being in my body, centering my power.

Being part of listening and speaking circles in council and other practices of deep listening, resonance, and truth telling. The circles need to keep expanding until they include everybody.

Naming and grieving spaces where I cannot tell the truth, and, if I choose to stay, finding creative ways to stay whole and subtly shift the space.

Working with others to build power in a group that does not have an equal say at the table. I approach this by trying to deeply feel and embody the connection I have to the group or issue, moving from emotional periphery to center, grounding any oppositional work in the service of love.

With my dowsing rods and my digging, I have caught a quick glimpse of the luminous water I am seeking.  I suspect I will need to keep dowsing my way back to that source again and again. Back to luminous water. The play of sunlight on water. The play of spirituality and activism. Becoming intimate with the underlying dynamics of all human struggles, facilitating truth telling, and when possible, building collective power in the service of love.

Closing Words for the Service

El Mundo Zurdo (the Left-handed World)

The pull between what is and what should be. I believe that by changing ourselves we change the world, that traveling El Mundo Zurdo path is the path of a two-way movement -a going deep into the self and an expanding out into the world, a simultaneous recreation of the self and a reconstruction of society….Only together can we be a force.

-Gloria Anzaldua

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Meditation-Occupation

Since mid October, I’ve been participating in and helping to organize a weekly Meditation-Occupation on the Greenfield Common.

Oct 29, 2011

The idea was planted at an October day-long meditation retreat organized by my sangha, Green River Zen Center. We held the afternoon portion of our retreat on the Common in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street, still in it early swirling days. Several of us expressed a commitment to continue this public sitting practice. I recall feeling surprised by how much I liked meditating publicly -feeling the exposure to the elements and and to passers-by, my body on the line and in line with others, Occupying.

Nov. 11, 2011 Photo by Jiko

And there is something about Occupying in silence. (Sometimes the mind is noisy, but the practice is to return to focus and presence in the body.) We sit for 30 minutes, following the Greenfield Savings Clock as our timer. If someone is cold, they are welcome to do walking meditation.

Nov. 11, 2011 Photo by Jiko

After sitting, we do council practice, speaking and listening from the heart. People usually reflect on some aspect of meditation, occupation, and the growing sense of community among participants in this circle.

Nov. 19, 2011

It’s been a treat, a deep treat, to sit again and again with people at the Meditation-Occupation. There are regulars (Lance, Peale, Alice, myself, Jeanie, Deb, Robin, Jeff, Jaye) and those that come when they can (Emilie, Peter, Brenda, Anne, Eve, Ari, Kanji, Genyo, Sarah, two Elliotts, Josh, Ike, Jiko, Marina and Jack, Karen B., Ashley, people walking by.) Sometimes people stop in just for the council, bring a sibling who is visiting from out of town, or email to say how much they appreciate knowing this is happening. They are all part of the circle of energy.

Nov. 19, 2011

I am going tomorrow, still nursing a cough. It will be 45 degrees, cold ground, a January day. Lance and Jeanie are away. Maybe I’ll be alone. I want to go. Meditation-Occupation keeps me emotionally connected to Occupy. It feeds me to do this practice, because I join Occupy, I embody Occupy when I do this. I am Occupy. I am keeping the flame alive in this practice. And the flame feeds me. It will feel colder if I am alone; it will feel warmer if others are near me, just psychologically. And maybe we are wind barriers for each other.

Occupy is a loud NO to a system that is WHACKED and deemed loudly to be unacceptable. It is a courageous NO! It is a NO that comes from no other choices. It is a multi-textured NO. I will say NO, grounded in meditation, a space of presence, a space in which I try to embody oneness, no separation, no blame. NO! A NO of Love, not tight. A cupped hand. A strong one.

Getting ready for meditation on our first snow covered day. Jan. 14, 2012

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Greenfield Gardens

Greenfield Gardens is a co-operatively run housing complex about a mile away from downtown Greenfield, Massachusetts.  The Pray Street complex of 202 units is set off from a main thoroughfare and has a road winding through it, grassy areas, and a new community center.

Greenfield Gardens provides permanently affordable housing (many residents qualify for section 8 subsidies) as well as some market rate units. Many residents are single-parent families from diverse backgrounds- Russian, Latino, African-American, and white.

I visited Greenfield Gardens on an afternoon just before Thanksgiving, when I met the Crafts family sitting outside and enjoying their holiday lights. Other neighbors were leaning out their doors chatting.

The Crafts Family of Greenfield Gardens

Originally owned by lawyers from out of town, Greenfield Gardens tenants were given an option to buy the property in 1994. The tenants joined the Springfield based group Alliance to Develop Power (ADP), making it possible for them to purchase the housing complex with loans from HUD.  With ADP’s support, tenants formed a non-profit called the Homesavers Council, which now owns the property and embraces co-operative principles. Decisions are made by nine elected volunteer board members, all of whom are residents of Greenfield Gardens.

Whereas before 1994, tenants paid rent to private owners who made all of the decisions about the property, residents now pay rent to the non-profit Homesavers Council and resident-Board members make the decisions. The Board has chosen to work with a specific management company, Mt. Holyoke Management, on the condition that they hire people from four sister housing complexes in the Valley to do all of the maintenance and real estate management for the four sites. (All of these housing complexes are co-operatively run and share a close affiliation with ADP –two are in Springfield and one is in Westfield, representing a total of 770 households.) This is a wonderful benefit that enables residents at the four sister housing complexes to get living wage jobs and viable opportunities for career advancement.

I met with Andrea Goldman, Board President of Greenfield Gardens and a resident there since 1997, who mentioned that before it was tenant run, Greenfield Gardens had a “bad name.” Once it was owned by a non-profit and co-operatively run by an elected board, the culture shifted and residents “cleaned it up.”

Andrea Goldman, Board Pres. of Greenfield Gardens

Andrea is also Co-Chair of the Board of ADP, which continues to build alternative economic institutions (community owned and cooperatively run housing complexes, a Worker Center, and a worker-controlled business called United for Hire) around the Valley. ADP is currently developing worker-run “bodegas” that will connect with local farms and sell healthy produce in areas that need it. One of these bodegas is being planned for nearby Turners Falls, Massachusetts, a town next to Greenfield. ADP also does  Saul Alinsky-style community organizing, which has politicized ADP members, helping them develop leadership and public speaking skills as they build collective power.

As I participate in Occupy activities, bearing witness to widespread financial abuses, I am continually refreshed by innovative community economy projects like the work of ADP.  Greenfield Gardens and ADP are more examples of economic solidarity, the slow and steady work of beloved community.

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The Bank Bought It

The Montague Farm auction was scheduled for 11am, and I arrived at 10am to bear witness to all of it and to harvest nettles.

At 10am, it’s just me, the auctioneer, and one of the original commune inhabitants, Sam. I walk towards them carrying a paper bag. “Is that cash in there?” Sam hollers. “No…nettles. If only nettles were a currency.”

Montague Farm –how to describe it? It is a windy, rough, unfinished place that so many people love deeply.

Montague Farm brings out parts of me that need a space like this to emerge –the gleaner, the gatherer, the planter, the tender, the lightning rod, so many early zen tears, cooking. I use(d) the ingredients of my life here.

At 10:30am, large trucks pull in –several developers poised to bid. I envy them. And wonder how they would develop this place.

Where I am standing, the nettle is gorgeous. I’ve never harvested in this patch before by the teacher’s cottage. It has been wonderfully mowed and the cold has done it good. I cut and cut and feel comforted by my task, my plan, my practicality. I want to make edible treats for my neighbors who helped me out when the power went out last week.

More developers. A circle of men in long black coats talk near the barn, out of earshot from where I am. I feel excluded as I harvest. I know I look different from them, and I self segregate. I have two different boots on. I do not look like a developer or banker. I am the only woman here.

My thoughts turn bitter and cynical. I’ll make “foreclosure nettle pesto,” I seethe. This is where we need Occupy Wall Street. Here, as bankers and developers chummy up and make their mark. I don’t want to be excluded from here. I do not like private property. I do not like hierarchy and feeling powerless.

By 10:45am, more cars pull in (Audis, fancy pick-ups, older cars, and some all-terrain four wheelers with maple syrup tanks in back.) People mingle, and I join them. We are hugging, wondering who the bidders are. Many of us have met over the past six months, seeing if we could gather buyers for the Farm or help make a plan to keep the Farm in the community. Susan, Nina, Janice, Karen, Sam, and Tom lived here in the commune days. Clara was born and raised here. The abutters who tap the maple trees in spring arrive, along with other neighbors; the town sheriff Gary who lives next door comes.  I see the Zen Peacemakers lawyer Tom who obviously cares for the place; the architects Jeremy and Scott transformed the barn into a sanctuary and now feel deeply connected here. Laurie stands with a young couple and their child. Dennis arrives. Dear Dennis, who lives down the road and whose wildness is like this land. Later when he leaves, he jokes, “Text me!” He has no idea what a text is or how to do it. Neither do I.

Nina, one of the former commune members, insists we all be able to hear the auction, not just those who brought the 25k in cash needed to bid. Before, it seemed they were going to do the bidding privately in the board room inside the barn. Nina convinces them to let us all listen. Just after 11am, on the steps outside the barn’s main hall, the auctioneer starts his litany. I lean on a tree, as we stand in a semi-circle listening, some with their heads down. The language is poetic as he reads the property boundaries: “Beginning at a heap of stones on Sawmill River….north to the Gunn’s Brook so called…Excepting the Ground on which the school house now stands…Being known as the home place.”

Kanji, my dharma brother, shows up in the midst of this. “Kisui!” he yells, and I’m momentarily surprised to hear my dharma name. Our zen teacher Eve gave each of us a name when we made vows to the Buddhist precepts in the Montague Farm Zendo, and I, along with two others, was named partly after the water on this land. Kisui means luminous water. For years, there was a sign in the barn’s bathroom above the sink: “The water here is from our well and is very good.” I loved that sign. The water here is extremely good.

The auctioneer starts the bid at 480,000. A man standing near the auctioneer in a black wool winter coat looks down to the ground, and I dislike him in that moment. I imagine him wanting so badly to win the bid. “Do I hear 490? 480- 480 going once, going twice, going three times. Sold for 480,000.”

We are silent. So quick! Hearts close and weep by the willow planted by Sam and Janice thirty years ago and stepped on by a cow. Grief. Nina rushes up. “Who are you?” she asks the man whose bid has won. The man says Kevin and no one gets his last name. Someone says, “It’s a developer, there goes the hill full of housing units.” I go to the main hall and ask a woman I don’t recognize who she is. She is from the USDA, which had guaranteed Zen Peacemakers’ defaulted mortgage. I think this means the USDA is now in better shape regarding the mortgage. I don’t know. She doesn’t look relieved. It’s probably a mess. Somehow I get clear that the bank, rather than a developer, has bought Montague Farm. “The bank bought it,” I yell to those who don’t yet realize.

People mingle and strategize next steps –could there be a collective offer, another try? The bank will want to sell. People will meet tomorrow. New connections are made. I go back to my paper bag and cut more nettle. Prickly, wild, nourishing nettle.

As the crowd thins, I run up the hill to gather Roxbury apples that I tasted yesterday while walking the land, having considered making an auction bid with my friend Dan. Our bid was much lower than the bank’s 480k purchase, and so we didn’t have a chance this round.

The yellow-brown Roxbury apples are bruised and beautiful. Turns out Nina helped plant the very tree I am harvesting from. Soon my car is loaded up with my gleanings. I’ll make nettle pesto this weekend. I no longer feel a need to call it “foreclosure pesto” but think of “resilience pesto.”

The bank owns the farm. No developers for now. The future is unknown.

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We Should Know How it Comes to Us

Jiko McIntosh, my sangha sister, reminded us in a lovely precept talk on Chaste Conduct about these words in our food prayer: “72 Labors Brought us this food.  We should know how it comes to us.” She was speaking of the bodily instinct to eat, sometimes ferociously. She reminded us of salt, sugar, tea, spices, coffee, all of the staple foods historically brought to us through global power abuses.

I brought attention to Chaste Conduct while eating lunch today. I shut my bloody laptop and ate. Even so, my mind drifted off this way and that. But I’d come back to my rice, parsley, garlic and to my fork. Jiko’s talk reminded me, yet again, of how much there is in a single moment, and how I can forget this, instead hoarding stimulation -email, food, plans, internal dialogues. This attention to my food brought me to that delicious space of not hoarding. How much there is: this head cold, this anticipation of the general assembly in Amherst tonight, this fall day.

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Green Economic Solidarity: Boston’s Vida Verde Co-op!


Vida Verde Co-op Members

Vida Verde Co-op is comprised of fifteen house cleaners (14 women plus 1 man), recent immigrants separated from their extended families in Brazil. Vida Verde formed in response to two problems these workers experienced in Boston: exploitative domestic work conditions and extensive exposure to toxic cleaning products.

Before Vida Verde formed, these cleaners were isolated from each other and typically earned less than $600 per month for exhausting and unsafe work. Many experienced asthma, headaches, and reproductive problems from exposure to products like SOS All Purpose Cleaner, Clorox, Easy Off, Dawn, Tide, Spic and Span, Windex, Lemon-Fresh Pine-Sol, and Formula 409.

A non-profit immigrants group provided a space where some of the women shared stories and testimonials about their house cleaning work, which inspired them to collectively address the problems. With the help of start-up funding from NIOSH (National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health) and collaboration with a Tufts University professor, Vida Verde Brazilian Women’s Co-op launched in 1995.

Working as individual contractors, Vida Verde Co-op members collectively set their pay-rates, so that each one now earns $2000 per month for cleaning two homes a day, five days a week.  Every Co-op member gets this basic level of work, distributing referrals among themselves as needed. Once everyone has the basic amount of work, those who are interested can seek additional cleaning work. Most of the Co-op’s clients are in Jamaica Plain and Somerville, Massachusetts.

Becoming a Co-op member requires training and a six month trial period. Members each contribute 5% of their income to support the Co-op’s advertising and other expenses, including child-care while they are giving trainings. The Co-op makes all of their decisions by majority vote. If a member gets sick or has a family emergency, other members step in and assist as needed –there is a culture of mutual aid and solidarity.

Central to Vida Verde’s mission is that they use only non-toxic cleaning products that they make themselves out of vinegar, castile soap, borax, and essential oils. They package and sell these products for low prices and teach classes about how to make one’s own cleaning supplies. UMass Lowell’s Toxic Use Reduction Institute tested Vida Verde’s products and found them to be very effective, as well as non-toxic for both the cleaners and the inhabitants of the homes being cleaned.

At the Green Solidarity Economy conference, I heard several Vida Verde Co-op members speak movingly in Portuguese about how important it has been to work with non-toxic cleaning products and how much they have benefited from the sense of Co-op community and solidarity.

One Vida Verde member, Lucimara Rodrigues, explains:

“I was exploited when I was a cleaning company employee. Most employers do not seem to be aware that we are human beings. Today, I am no longer exploited neither [do I] have any health problems because I just use our natural cleaning products. The cooperative also taught me that you can make a better world and it stirred my desire to work more in my community. I understand that the cooperative is the solution to end the exploitation at work. Because of this, I love what I do.” (from their website.)

Economics and spirituality are often seen as opposing categories -but really they are very much the same thing. They are both about relationships and the quality of attention and care we bring to this world.

One of the commitments we make in my Zen lineage when we take our Buddhist vows is to support a culture of solidarity and a just economic order. I am drawn to Vida Verde, because it is a living example of this vow. Vida Verde Co-op is a space of solidarity (mutuality, collective organizing for the benefit of all) and an example of  just economics, infused with dignity, joy, care, environmental concern, and recognition of women’s and immigrants’ labor.

Committing to a culture of solidarity and a just economic order mean a lot to me, and I want to keep exploring the full meaning and implications of these commitments, in part by documenting exciting examples and role models.

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