Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Running to win: victory in the clean power campaign

Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it.
-          1 Corinthians 9:24

I love long-distance running. Ever since I started doing cross country during my junior year of high school in the mountains of central Pennsylvania, running has been one of the ways that I reconnect with the earth and my body. However, I occasionally run competitively as well, and that’s a different kind of running. I watch my pace more, put my head down as I ascend hills, and always save just a bit of extra energy for the “kick” in the last 400 meters.

I often compare long-distance running to organizing for social change. They’re both endurance sports, so don’t get involved unless you’re willing to commit a substantial amount of personal time, emotional energy, and physical activity to the point of exhaustion. Once you’ve gone on for a while, the fastest way home is just keep running. Victories usually come in the form of personal records, not headline-making races.

However, I recently saw a huge victory that made headlines in all the news outlets in Chicago. The Chicago Clean Power Coalition has been working to shut down or clean up Crawford and Fisk coal-fired power plants for 10 years. The group includes the environmental groups, student organizations, labor unions, and community based organizations. Bridgeport Alliance, the neighborhood group that my neighbors and I started with the help of the South Side network SOUL, officially joined the coalition as soon as we settled on a name last December.

I learned about Fisk power plant last July when a couple of Sierra Club organizers came to my near South Side church.  I learned about how Fisk and Crawford put deadly levels of particulate matter into the one of the most densely populated areas in the country—and Fisk was only about a mile away from my doorstep. I checked out the peer-reviewed articles from Harvard, and, having been sufficiently convinced of its evil, I started gathering petitions and going to actions.

Bridgeport organizing really kicked into gear when a Green Corps organizer was assigned to the neighborhood. Soon we had a visible base out in the streets, bars, and coffee shops and we were collecting signatures and photo-petitions challenging Chicago and corporate leaders to put people over their profits. Clean power came to mean more than only green energy but also a more transparent, inclusive decision-making process. Through these efforts, Bridgeport Alliance was born and was turning dozens of people to events.

It was an incredibly exciting autumn for me. Soon it became clear that we were part of marathon relay team, and we were running the last leg of the race. Today the Chicago Sun-Times broke the story about how Mayor Emmanuel and Midwest Generation had reached an agreement to shut down Fisk by December 31st of this year. Victory.

Of course, like long-distance running, after a victory, we can’t simply stop. That invites cramps, so runners need to run a cool-down. And then we still have miles to run to stay on track for our training regimen.  Too often our elected officials claim victory prematurely, and their constituents settle back only see the problem continue. Many community organizations accepted donations from Midwest Generation essentially as hush money, but that funding will disappear without a good community benefits agreement. And of course we still have hundreds of acres of contaminated industrial property in our backyard.

Though we still have a lot of work to do, a victory gives me some time to reflect on the race. The campaign has had a profound effect on me. Because of the neighborhood outreach we did, I fell in love with Bridgeport and committed to living there for another three years as I study theology at Chicago Theological Seminary. This victory wets my appetite to continue organizing my neighbors so that we can keep our unresponsive local government accountable.

I’ll be thinking about these things when I run the Shamrock Shuffle on March 25. I’ll be running for a prize.

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