Grassroots Musicle

In Defense of Life

Gaia Foundation (2016)

Film Review

The whole world is inspired by the courage and stamina of indigenous protestors at Standing Rock.

In Defense of Life is about four other successful grassroots campaigns in South Africa, the Philippines, Romania and Colombia to block multinational mining companies from destroying their communities. Interviews with some of the activists shed important insights into their motivations and organizing strategies.

In Kuazulu Natal (South Africa), local residents organized to block a coal mining company with plans to destroy six villages by blasting for coal.

In Nuevo (Philippines), the indigenous Ifoga people organized to block Oceania Gold from blowing the top off a mountain to mine for gold and copper.

In Sosia Montana (Romania), locals organized to stop the Canadian mining company Gabriel Resources from blowing up mountains to create four open pit mines. This would have resulted in the forcible displacement of hundreds of residents, as well as the contamination of local water supplies with the cyanide used in gold extraction.

In Yaigoje Apaporis (Colombia), indigenous groups blocked the Canadian mining company Cosigo Resources from destroying the sacred La Libertad waterfall.

Reclaiming Our Streets: A Model for Social Change

mental speed bumps

Mental Speed Bumps: A Smarter Way to Tame Traffic.

by David Engwicht, Envirobook 2005

Book Review

David Engwicht is an Australian social inventor who consults internationally with town planners and social engineers about traffic calming measures. Mental Speed Bumps describes a revolutionary bottom-up approach to traffic calming called “street reclaiming.” The main focus of street reclaiming is to reclaim city streets for people instead of motor vehicles.

Because of their immediate change effect, street reclaiming activities are extremely effective for inspiring optimism about political change. As well as helping to repair broken social networks, they encourage ordinary citizens to see themselves as change agents, rather than waiting for indifferent and/or corrupt political leaders to make changes on their behalf.

As Engwicht points out, most people tend to blame someone else – either city officials – or drivers from other neighborhoods – for their traffic problems. However on closer scrutiny, they usually discover that they and their neighbors are responsible for about one third of the traffic on their street.

The “Living Room” Analogy

Based on working with neighborhood activists all over the world, Engwicht recommends street reclaimers follow five basic steps:

1. Reclaim your street as a socializing space
  • Move some of your normal activities closer to the street (e.g. reading your book in your front yard or on the sidewalk – working on painting, refinishing, and other do-it-yourself projects in your parking space instead of your garage or basement).
  • Supervise children playing on the sidewalk or in the roadway.
  • Walk your kids to school
  • Walk to local destinations and greet people you encounter.
  • Hold a street party.
2. Move more slowly and gently
  • Reduce your own car use to a minimum.
  • If you must drive, do it more slowly and casually.
  • Teach your kids to walk or cycle to school.
3. Intrigue travelers by engaging them in the social life of the street.
  • Wave to motorists.
  • Put something intriguing, such as a veggie garden, in your front yard or parking strip
  • Blur the boundary between your private home and the street (e.g. take down your front fence and curtains). This is common in many European communities to maintain the street as a social space.
4. Work with neighbors to create “Linger Nodes” to facilitate social life in your street.
  • Create a socializing node on your private land (seating, drinking fountain community notice board, sculpture, etc) or on the sidewalk.
  • Encourage local businesses to connect with the street by placing an activity outside their premises.
5. Evolve your street from a "corridor" into a "room."
  • Put “furniture” and “art” in your room.
  • Work with your city on design elements that make your street feel more like a room (for example a landscaped entryway, a ceiling made of flags or banners, and walls created from furniture or art).

Examples of street reclaiming activities:

parking meter party

Vancouver parking meter party

Above: Parking meter party (Vancouver)

photo credit: Andrew Curran via photopin cc

Below: Walking school bus (Montreal)

photo credit: Dylan Passmore via photopin cc

walking school bus

More free traffic taming information and materials available from Creative Communities


read an ebook week

In celebration of read an ebook week, there are special offers on all my ebooks (in all formats) this week: they are free.

This includes my new novel A Rebel Comes of Age and my memoir The Most Revolutionary Act: Memoir of an American Refugee

Offer ends Sat. Mar 8.

Activism in New Zealand

Maori protest

(The last of 8 posts describing my new life in New Zealand)

For me personally, the advantages of living in New Zealand far outweigh the negatives. One of the major positives is the greater willingness of Kiwis to get involved in grassroots campaigns for political change. Give my 30+ year history of activism, this is obviously a high priority.

Overall, I find Kiwis to be less alienated and apathetic than their American cousins, less likely to be taken in by the corporate hype they see on TV, and more confident about their ability to bring about change through collective action. I believe this relates, in large part, to a well-organized, militant indigenous (Maori) movement. Their highly visible activism models the importance of collective struggle for other New Zealanders, in much the same way the American civil rights struggle provided a role model for the US antiwar movement, and the women’s, gay and disability rights movement.

There are also a number of institutional and social features about New Zealand society that make political organizing somewhat easier.

Institutional features:

  • New Zealand has a parliamentary democracy coupled with elections conducted via proportional representation (which Kiwis won through strenuous grassroots organizing). The New Zealand Green Party (which I joined in 2002) presently has 14 MPs in Parliament.
  • New Zealand has no illusions about being a great military empire. In my experience, it’s only after they leave that Americans fully realize how much US militarism overshadows every aspect of their life.
  • New Zealand is 100% anti-nuclear (both nuclear power and weapons), and US naval ships are banned in our ports because the US government refuses to indicate whether specific vessels are nuclear powered or carry nuclear arms. This, too, was won by sustained grassroots organizing.
  • New Zealand has no death penalty.
  • At presented, genetically engineered crops and farm animals aren’t legally permitted in New Zealand (except in the laboratory). That being said, keeping New Zealand GE-free requires constant vigilance and sustained organizing.
  • The cattle supplying New Zealand’s world famous dairy and beef export industry are grass fed (except during drought years), and no Kiwi farmer would dream of injecting them with hormones or feeding them antibiotics to stimulate growth.

Social Features:

  • New Zealand has a predominantly working class culture, owing to a misguided student loan policy which has led about one million college graduates to emigrate (mainly to Australia and the UK. Given my own working ckass background, I fit in really quickly. Americans from more middle class backgrounds seem to have more difficulty.
  • While much of the New Zealand media is foreign-owned and blatantly pro-corporate, there are still vestiges of an independent media that routinely challenges and embarrasses the government in power.
  • Kiwis are much more likely to have a civic life than their American counterparts. Here in New Plymouth (population 55,000), most of my friends belong to the Green Party or the sustainability movement. However I also have friends who belong to Lions, Rotary or one of the many sports clubs (lawn bowling, cricket, soccer, rugby) or hobby groups (stamp club, little theater, orchid society, tramping club, canoe club and four cycling groups).
  • New Zealand has a much stronger sustainability movement than the US. The late arrival of both TV and cheap Asian imports in means most Kiwis are only one generation away from growing vegetables, raising their own chickens and “making do” with jerry-rigged plumbing and home repairs and homemade cleaning and beauty products. The majority of my female friends still hang their laundry on the line, and community currencies introduced during the last recession still survive in several local communities.

photo credit: lancea via photopin cc