Fight for the Right to be Green - Earth Week

By Molly Freeman

Photo courtesy of Molly Freeman.

Like the United States’ Bill of Rights, a Community Bill of Rights protects citizens within a town or borough. This can be different depending on the community and how their bill of rights is written. For example, the Bill of Rights in State College, Pennsylvania protects the borough’s right to make decisions about issues such as health, safety and welfare, as well as the environment.

The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund has worked with many communities around the country to write legislation like this that will protect local citizens from the consequences of corporate tampering with the environment. Their mission statement, “Building sustainable communities by assisting people to assert their right to local self-government and the rights of nature” explains that they are dedicated to helping prevent local enterprises involving hydraulic fracturing, mining, factory farming, etc.

In the past few years, more and more areas have worked to pass Community Bills of Rights legislation. Among those that were successful are State College, Pennsylvania, whose citizens passed their Community Bill of Rights in November 2011, and Santa Monica, California, which passed their version on April 9. Residents of both municipalities consulted with the CELDF to write the legislation.

Photo courtesy of Jenna Chandler.

Cris Gutierrez, co-founder of Santa Monica Neighbors Unite!, worked to pass the Sustainability Bill of Rights in her community. Gutierrez tells BTR that she worked with Santa Monica’s Task Force on the Environment, a well-respected organization in the city, to develop these bills. Along with concerned neighbors, activists, and political community leaders, the two groups promoted the bill of rights within their community.

“We did a lot of small and big things,” Gutierrez says. SM Neighbors Unite! worked for two and a half years to spread the word in the community by holding house meetings, workshops, town halls, launching a petition that was not online, and created a blog.

Since Gutierrez worked as an educator for a good portion of her life, she thought to engage the youth in the community through the Santa Monica High School and Santa Monica College.

Image courtesy of Santa Monica.

“I immediately realized the youth need to lead this with us equally as co-activists and co-leaders,” she says. These young people were equally ambitious as everyone else on board and turned out to be very important in the campaign for their Sustainability Bill of Rights.

Across the country in State College, PA, Braden Crooks first learned about such bills of rights in 2010 while he attended Penn State University and advocated against hydraulic fracturing. Crooks tells BTR that Pittsburgh, PA effectively banned fracking through a community bill of rights and he began to look into possibly using the same means in his local area.

Crooks realized that the bill of rights wouldn’t pass through the borough council, so he decided to get it on the ballot for a popular vote. He needed 750 signatures on a petition but he was able to get 1,000. In the fall of 2011, State College passed their Community Bill of Rights with 72 percent of the popular vote.

“I’m not sure if anyone knew it would be so successful, but we ran our campaign on a positive vision of what we wanted our community to be: we have the right to a sustainable future,” Crooks says.

He spread the word about the community bill of rights through rallies, letters to the editor, post cards to registered voters, and tapped into the momentum of Occupy Wall Street to coordinate a rally with the local Occupy group.

Now Crooks’s organization, Groundswell, is fighting a pipeline proposed by Penn State University that would go through the borough. However, this plan directly violates the provision against pipelines in the State College Community Bill of Rights.

In an open letter to Penn State University President Rodney Erikson posted early last week on The Daily Collegian’s website, Crooks urged him to work with the community. Late last week, Penn State News reported that President Erikson responded to the community’s concerns and asked Columbia Gas to “re-evaluate alternative routes.”

“Average residents and voters have made the decision to stop it, we fully support them,” Crooks says of Groundswell’s involvement in fighting the pipeline.

If other communities want to learn from State College and Santa Monica’s example, Gutierrez has some advice: make sure to look for advantages already in your community such as organizations dealing with issues of sustainability and protecting citizens’ rights; take an affirmative approach; extend networking efforts to unusual partners such as churches, schools, and local businesses; and link the effort to other important issues such as ending corporate rights.

In celebration of Earth Week on BTR, the protection of our environment is on the forefront of everyone’s mind. These Community Bills of Rights are one way of protecting the rights of the citizen, and establishing a foundation for protecting the environment on the local level.