50 Solutions: The NortheastMaine’s Clean Elections, New York’s Sustainable Housing, and Morescroll down arrow

YES! Photo by Lauryn Sophia Photography

Connecticut

The Fix-It Shop Where Neighbors Mend Your Clothes

Photo courtesy Willimantic Repair Café

Volunteers work to sharpen an axe at a repair event. Photo courtesy Willimantic Repair Café

For many, replacing a broken object with something new is often the faster and cheaper alternative to fixing it, but a group of neighbors in the small borough of Willimantic decided it didn’t have to be that way. Three years ago, they started a program to keep salvageable goods from landfills by harnessing the community’s collective skills to fix them.

They started a “repair cafe,” where once a season locals can bring broken household items like vacuums, bicycles, and clothes for repair. Knowledgeable neighbors help fix the broken items and provide their owners with a few tips on how to take care of problems in the future.

Virginia Walton helped organize the first repair cafe. She says that while the repair cafe started as a way to encourage residents to reuse and recycle, it has since become a community event that helps people get to know each other. “I’m no professional, but when I finish mending something … the person has such a look of joy on her face,” she says. “It’s soul food.”

Maine

Elections Without Big Money$5 contributions help candidates run publicly funded campaigns

YES! Photo by Lauryn Sophia Photography

Joyce “Jay” McCreight talks to a fisherman on Cook’s Wharf in Harpswell, Maine. McCreight, who’s on the Marine Resources committee, hopes to make changes through legislation that works for her constituents. YES! Photo by Lauryn Sophia Photography

State representative Joyce McCreight never thought she would run for office. She’d always been an advocate for her neighbors in the coastal Maine town of Harpswell, but she did that as a social worker in public middle schools. She remembers a pregnant seventh-grader who once came to see her, and parents who worked multiple jobs but struggled to support their families.

James Trimarco

James Trimarco is a senior editor at YES! Follow him on Twitter @jamestrimarco.

She was convinced that the state government could do more to help those people, and she had ideas about how to do it. But she didn’t like the idea of raising money from donors to pay for her campaign. It went against her ethics.

In most states, that would have been the end of the story. But Maine had a law that made it easier for people who saw things like McCreight to run for state office.

The Maine Clean Election Act, originally passed in 1996 and strengthened in 2015, gives candidates the option to finance campaigns with taxpayer dollars. Candidates who choose to run a publicly financed campaign don’t need to spend time courting wealthy donors — they’re prohibited from raising private money. Instead, constituents show their support through $5 contributions to the Maine Clean Election Fund made in a candidate’s name. That money helps fund the program. Once they have raised the required number of donations, candidates receive a flat fee from the state (both amounts vary depending on the office being sought). There’s an option to seek more funding in certain circumstances.

During McCreight’s first campaign, in 2014, the state gave her nearly $5,000 once she’d collected 60 contributions. She won, and by the end of her first term, she’d helped write and pass a bill that gave low-income people better access to reproductive health care.

McCreight’s story shows what’s possible when Americans who aren’t especially wealthy bring their understanding of life’s daily challenges into the legislature. It’s an exception to the story of most campaign financing, and was made possible by a network of activists who came together in 1995 to draft and support the Maine Clean Election Act. A similar coalition, now represented by the nonprofit Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, snapped into action last year to strengthen that law after a series of court decisions reduced participation. They succeeded. Today, the number of publicly funded candidates like McCreight is rebounding.

Running Clean

The program was popular from the beginning: It went into effect in 2000, and by 2008, more than 4 out of 5 candidates for state office were publicly financed. Participating — or “running clean” — offered freedom from feelings of obligation to campaign donors.

“There was an unspoken pressure to vote a certain way,” said politician Justin Chenette about his privately financed campaign for state representative in 2012. “There was a ‘We supported you, now you have to have our backs’ sort of thing.” Chenette switched to public financing for his campaigns in 2014 and 2016. He said that now he votes based on his district’s best interests.

The clean elections system gave Maine the most economically diverse legislature in the nation. According to political scientist Nicholas Carnes’ 2013 book, White-Collar Government: The Hidden Role of Class in Economic Policy Making, about 14 percent of Maine legislators are working-class: waitresses, cashiers, machinists. Only 2 percent of U.S. Congress members come from similar backgrounds.

Then, in 2011, the Supreme Court ruled in McComish v. Bennett that a key part of programs like Maine’s was unconstitutional: The state, to even the playing field, was giving extra funding to candidates whose opponents outspent them. The Court decided this violated the rights of campaign donors, whose contributions are protected as free speech under 2010’s Citizens United decision. The McComish decision weakened Maine’s Clean Election Act: Politicians who ran clean lost leverage against well-funded candidates running privately.

YES! Infographic

YES! Infographic

“That scared a lot of people and made them feel vulnerable,” said Roger Katz, a Republican who ran his fourth publicly financed campaign for state Senate this year.

The percentage of candidates who ran clean immediately declined, especially among Republicans. But Maine Citizens for Clean Elections found a way to circumvent McComish and restore competitiveness to public funding: Outspent candidates could collect more $5 contributions to receive additional funding. That tweak became law in 2015.

Back in Harpswell, McCreight is helping local lobster fishermen face a new suite of issues.

“I’m very proud of Maine for having clean elections,” she said. For McCreight, it’s created a government that looks more like the people it’s supposed to represent.

James Trimarco

James Trimarco is a senior editor at YES! Follow him on Twitter @jamestrimarco.

Massachusets

Pushing for a Carbon Tax, One Person at a Time

Instigating change doesn’t happen overnight. Just ask Jessica Langerman.

Seven years ago, Langerman, a mother of three and a high school teacher turned freelance writer, had no experience in politics. That changed when she learned that greenhouse gases could warm Boston’s climate to South Carolina-like conditions by the end of the next century. She became determined to help find a solution to the seemingly insurmountable threat of climate change.

Applying her newfound knowledge of the environment, in April 2013, Langerman joined others to create the Committee for a Green Economy (CGE), which focuses on how to transition from carbon-dependent sources to alternatives that don’t hurt the economy. CGE member and economist Cathy Carruthers had researched the idea, but she needed a way to prove it.

Econometrist Scott Nystrom provided the proof Langerman and Carruthers needed. The two funded a study by Nystrom that showed the potential for a 2 percent increase in gross state product from carbon taxes.

Days after the study came out in July 2013, Massachusetts State Senator Michael Barrett, a Democrat, invited Langerman to present the study’s findings to Massachusetts lawmakers. Afterward, Langerman founded Climate XChange to promote a carbon tax statewide.

Barrett has since proposed a bill that would tax companies that import fossil fuels. The bill has slowly gained momentum, and now Barrett and Climate XChange are gearing up for an even larger and stronger movement for carbon pricing in the 2017 legislative session. Without Langerman, Barrett says, carbon tax would not have the same traction. “These ideas don’t go anywhere unless they have a constituency, and Jessica is a spark plug,” he says.

New Hampshire

Mobile Home Residents Saved Their Park — By Buying It

When the residents of a Goffstown mobile home park learned their landlord was looking to sell the park property to a developer, they worried they would face steep rent hikes or even lose their homes.

But there was another option: New Hampshire law requires that residents be given the opportunity to buy land from a mobile park owner if they can match the sales price. Though the 301 families were competing with a national corporation, they teamed up with the New Hampshire Community Loan Fund, a community development financial institution that offers loans and technical assistance to people who traditional banks might decline. The families bought the land and created the Medvil Cooperative, a resident-owned community or ROC.

Medvil resident Kim Capen says that while there is more work in managing the community, the benefits are worth it. “For most of the people here, their homes are their largest and sometimes only investment, and you get to be in control of that as a member of the cooperative,” Capen says.

The ROC model has spread across New Hampshire. About one-fourth of the state’s 450 mobile home parks are resident-owned communities, ranging in size from four units to 392.

New Jersey

Community Oversight of the Local Police

Bryant Ali has been a pastor in Newark for the past 22 years.

And the entire time, he said, “I’ve been on the front line fighting against violence and racism.”

But never in his history of activism has he seen a development like this — an effort by the city to bring greater accountability to the police.

In 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice published a report showing the Newark Police Department regularly engaged in policing practices that infringed on civil rights. For those in the community, the report found what everyone on the ground already knew. “Now it’s finally coming to light,” said Ali.

Since the 1960s, activists, community leaders, and residents had been pushing for more police accountability, said Udi Ofer, executive director of the ACLU of New Jersey. The report confirmed a long history of excessive force, unwarranted stops and arrests, and other discriminatory police actions.

New Jersey chapters of the ACLU and NAACP, along with the Newark Anti-Violence Coalition and other grassroots and religious organizations, lobbied for a new civilian complaint review board, which advocates say establishes greater oversight of the police by citizens.

Of the board’s 11 members, six are nominated by civil rights organizations, helping to ensure the board represents Newark’s population. The board has the authority to subpoena officers and issue mandatory discipline in misconduct cases. Taken together, these components make Newark’s panel unique.

Keesha Eure, chair of the Newark Anti-Violence Coalition, credits Mayor Ras Baraka. He used executive authority to pass the bill creating the board.

“The board needs to [consist of] people from the community. People who don’t have any ties to city government and have the best interest of the community in mind,” said Eure.

And earlier this year, Ali was named a member of the civilian review board.

New York

Turning Abandoned Blocks into Green Housing

YES! Photo by Mark Boyer

Luis Nieves helps Michael Raleigh secure floorboards in Raleigh’s front porch. Raleigh is renovating a house on Buffalo’s East Side, which he purchased from the city for $1. YES! Photo by Mark Boyer

When Buffalo’s shipping and grain storage industries declined in the mid-20th century, it prompted thousands of jobs and people to leave. From 1950 to 2010, the population shrank by half, causing building vacancy rates to soar. That meant the people who remained lived amid the decay, says Aaron Bartley, co-founder of the grassroots organization People United for Sustainable Housing (PUSH) Buffalo.

Working closely with the community, PUSH Buffalo helped build a “Green Development Zone” — a 25-square-block area in which the organization turned abandoned and rundown properties into energy-efficient, affordable housing. The idea was to give families a better chance at staying rooted, finding jobs, and creating community.

That was 10 years ago, and since then PUSH Buffalo and local partners have, through grants and fundraising, put families into 50 affordable, energy-efficient housing units. Some have features like solar panels. The waiting list for them can be two years long.

Meanwhile, Bartley is happy to see more people in the streets and parks: “That’s still a very moving aspect of the work — seeing a community come together.”

Pennsylvania

Small Town Protected the Right to Protest

The people of a small Pennsylvania township have passed a first-in-the-nation law that protects residents from prosecution for protesting natural gas injection wells.

Grant Township, with a population under 1,000, relies entirely on private wells and springs for drinking water. In 2015, the community enacted a charter to stop Pennsylvania General Energy Company from depositing toxic wastewater underground. The wastewater is a byproduct of oil and gas drilling.

This new legislation, a response to what citizens say is the consistent exclusion of their voices in discussions between government and corporations, essentially legalizes civil disobedience in support of the 2015 charter.

The EPA has issued Pennsylvania General Energy Company a permit to drill, but the company is still waiting for the go-ahead from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

The Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund has helped Grant Township and more than 200 other towns and cities adopt laws that protect them from corporate interests.

Rhode Island

An Edible Park in the Middle of the City

Growing a lush woodland ecosystem might seem an impossible horticultural task to most urban green thumbs. But the Edible Forest Garden at Roger Williams Park in southern Providence proves otherwise. Initially planted in 2012, it’s designed to mimic the architecture of a forest, with its canopy structure and layers, and to be sustained without human intervention. In other words: no plowing, no problem.

“This is a new concept for a lot of people,” says Jaime Nash, a University of Rhode Island master gardener and program leader. Located inside a food desert, the half-acre forest garden can be replicated on any scale just about anywhere and can grow just about anything, he says. Nearby communities don’t take their proximity for granted — surplus produce is donated to food pantries in the area and can include varieties not commonly sold in stores. Hardy kiwi or pawpaw, anyone?

Vermont

Finding a Local Source for Refugee Traditions

Photo by John Lazenby

Before moving to the United States, Chuda Dhaurali lived in a refugee camp in Nepal, where he and his brother traded goats for seven years. Photo by John Lazenby

Twenty miles outside of Burlington, refugee farmers have found a way to make the state’s thriving local food culture taste a little more like home.

Fresh goat meat is a staple of the cuisine and spiritual practices of people from Bhutan, Nepal, and parts of Africa, but for many refugees, obtaining the traditional meat in Vermont wasn’t easy. Most local stores only carried frozen options, so getting fresh meat meant a long and pricey trip to farms across the state or to Massachusetts, with the added trouble of transporting a live goat back to the city and slaughtering it themselves.

“We used to have to drive three hours,” says Chuda Dhaurali, a Bhutanese refugee who would make the trek with friends. “We thought, why don’t we start a farm here in Vermont?”

Community organizer Karen Freudenberger heard the same sentiment echoed at the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program. She surveyed the grocery stores and markets around Burlington and found only frozen goat meat imported from Australia and New Zealand.

Meanwhile, goat milk and cheese were prevalent in the state, thanks to a number of dairies, and those farmers had a surplus of young male goats, known as bucklings. Together, Freudenberger and members of the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program struck a deal with dairy goat farmers. In 2013, they put the bucklings on farmland provided by the Vermont Land Trust 20 miles outside of Burlington, where Dhaurali raises them for meat within reach of the city’s immigrant population.

Today, three families share the farm and the herd has grown to some 400 goats.