Environmental Immigrants?

New Orleans: The Sierra Club is well known as the gray lady of the environmental movement – big, old, and staid with huge resources – some $80 million a year in expenditures – and a largely passive, tree hugging membership.  Led by Executive Director Carl Pope for some years, more recently the Sierra Club has become more active and aggressive in the political battlegrounds, raising $14,000,000 recently for voter registration before this November’s election for example, and getting involved in education based political activity in the last cycle. 

 Structurally the staff runs the operation and the members join through direct mail and other means as well as the structural local clubs that get out and clear brush, clean trails, and other classic and activist environmental efforts.  But because of this dual structure that includes the local clubs and years of traditions there are often spirited contests for the elected board and leadership positions and frequent referenda on numerous issues where the members get to vote every couple of years positions the Sierra Club should take on this and that.

I am not a member, so the process easily confuses me.  But, this year there is something peculiar that seems to be going on.  One keeps running into the oddly incongruous note here and there.  One would read of ex-Governor Richard Lamm from Colorado, known as a quasi-liberal Democratic green leaning politician in his day, being savaged as a radical candidate in some newspaper or magazine article and the nature of the invective would have something to do with his candidacy for the board: Lamm, an insurgent?  Who would ever have possibly guessed!  There are charges and counter-charges, mailings and money, slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.  Recently, MoveOn.org, the phenomena of internet activist, which I believe is structurally accountable to no one really, other than contributions “vote” with their donations, I presume, even jumped into the fray to support the incumbents against the insurgents.  Another unusual player was the Southern Poverty Law Center — in the main is a mailing house in Alabama often specializing in more sizzle than steak in recent years – which also jumped in for reasons obscure.

What is all of this about?

Seems that Lamm and his cohorts with the support of unseen others want to raise the old issues about population control – the Malthusian dilemma (now ultimately discredited, but still not insignificant) – as an environmental issue.  Fine, so far.  Deal with overcrowding, scarce resources, inequities between the first world and the third world – big issues, big debates, all of which would make for good small group discussion in hundreds of club meetings in church basements in middle class neighborhoods around the country.  But, where there seems to have become a flashpoint is that the population issue is being linked to immigration and a half-step from there to civil rights.  So the Lammistas have to present their civil rights record and in fact one of the Lamm ticket is a former executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus, probably exactly for that reason.

I had not realized that the Sierra Club was even involved in the important debate about immigration in our country.  That would have seemed so far from their core competency, that it is hard to imagine what particular credibility they would bring to the discussion whether they were for it or against it. 

I gather from a recent article in the Washington Post (3/22/04) that the ballots are now out on this issue and the board members who have staked out their various positions.  I have to wonder how it would much matter what position the Sierra Club might come to take on this issue versus the harm that has undoubtedly already been wrought from such intense and expensive internal conflict, which has the capability of diminishing a newly minted ally in our broader progressive fight and pushing the Club back into the forest among the trees from which they originally came.


ACORN Dominican Council: Elections

Santo Domingo/New Orleans: Flying back from Santo Domingo to Miami and now onwards towards New Orleans and home allows one to reflect more on life on the other side of the looking glass.

 Yesterday for example we began our day with a visit to the main hospital in Santo Domingo accompanied by the head of the nurses union (SINATRAE) and the CGT – the Conferacion General de Trabajadores.  It was a strange strike, and ACORN’s Dominican leaders had trouble believing that in fact it was really and truly a strike at all.  They expected signs, police, and noise.  There was none of that, and in fact we were all almost immediately ushered in by the union reps to see the Director General of the Hospital, who was excessively gracious and accommodating.  When Maria Polenco, ACORN’s National Vice-President, asked him to explain his relationship to the union since he seemed so calm in the middle of a strike, he answered essentially that he saw his role almost as a mediator, rather than a manager, taking messages to the General Secretary of the Health Department.  It also seemed clear that with elections seven weeks away, that nothing much was going to come of any of this until the governmental direction was settled.  In fact had there not been an article in the paper, there is no doubt that ACORN’s hard-bitten, demonstration-toughened leaders would have seen this as a charade.  It was at the least an education in a different type of tactic.

 Today before I sprinted for the airport we met with an interesting – and large – NGO in the DR, Participacion Ciudadana.  Among their projects in the ten years of their existence were trying to cleanup elections and increase their transparency.  For the first time, as I believe I have already mentioned, Dominicans with dual citizenship will be able to vote from abroad.  They needed our help, because the overlap of polling places for Dominicans in the US was a close match for our offices in the US.  Providing election observers on our own turf seemed like a good, solid first project for ACORN’s Dominican Council to sink their teeth in and advance their network throughout the northeast.  The offices were a litany that one would expect:  Boston, one in Providence, several in Jersey – Paterson, Union City, & Camden – 104 in New York City ranging throughout our groups in the Bronx and in Washington Heights.  The leaders were excited – this was something that could really be done!  Not a big, huge thing, but something solid that would build some bridges back home.

 And, here at home and away is a confusion and a contradiction – though not widespread really.  A Dominican – who is a citizen of the United States now and a recent immigrant – could vote for two Presidents this year – once in on May 16th right in the Bronx – and then again in November – also in the Bronx from another location.  One President would end up in an American constructed palace built for Trujillo, and the other would end up in the American constructed White House in Washington.  We spoke to Hatuey De Camps, President of the Partido Revolucionario Dominicana (PRD), earlier in the day for a brief period before he went into a press conference, and we asked him about this irony.  He shrugged and laughed with immense good humor, and basically said answering our question about why it was so hard for dual citizenship holders to be able to register to vote this spring, that the United States was not encouraging this kind of activity these days, and thought people should make up their mind and decide. 

He offered that report without an opinion of his own. 

On the other hand he also individually polled every member of our delegation about whether they were planning to vote for Bush or Kerry – and reported the vote to his aides as they brought messages into him, and tried unsuccessfully to hurry him along. 

Perhaps we had his opinion after all.