In Richmond, CA, a 3000-acre Chevron refinery processes crude oil for the global market. It's the largest refinery in California with towering smokestacks, long cylindrical pipes going in every direction, and many processing tanks, making it feel like a city unto itself. The refinery represents significant environmental justice threats, emitting thousands of pounds of unpronounceable toxic chemicals into the air, and periodically failing to prevent toxic explosions that put Richmond's predominantly low-income residents of color at risk of serious health problems. In the face of poverty and pollution, Richmond residents are on the frontlines of organizing to create a clean, democratic and equitable economy.
Transitioning to a local living economy in Richmond begins with building and activating community power to counterbalance the political muscle developers and fossil fuel corporations, like Chevron, exercise in the region. Because communities hit first and worst by climate-related crises have been left out of decision making processes that impact them, community-based organizations in Richmond, engaged a range of community power building strategies to ensure the future of Richmond be decided by the families that live there. First and foremost, they formed multi-stakeholder coalitions with base-building groups at the center. Together, groups like APEN (Asian Pacific Environmental Network), CBE (Communities for a Better Environment), Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), The Richmond Progressive Alliance and Faith-Works, invested in the leadership and capacity of residents to articulate their priorities and advocate for them in the General Plan.
Pushing against the status quo to demand a more democratic process required persistent, coordinated action. The coalition held regular learning institutes for decision-makers, organized community forums and rallies, and achieved mass mobilization at planning commission meetings, where residents were ready to contend with the interests of the economic elite. Owing to the depth of community organizing efforts, Richmond is one of the first cities in the country to address the links between public health and the environment in its General Plan. Through community organizing, direct action, policy advocacy, and ongoing education of decision-makers, Richmond residents made sure their city’s General Plan provides for economic development through local jobs, anti-displacement policies, better mass transit systems, and energy provisions that promote the growth of green industries.
Building the political power of residents has not stopped with the 2012 General Plan, and political power is just one half of the equation. Community-based organizations have since gotten to work translating the language in the Plan into projects, programs, and laws. Community organizing and direct electoral action succeeded in shifting the balance of power on the Richmond City Council in local elections that same year, moving the City closer to democratic representation of community needs and interests. And in 2014, despite millions of dollars invested into the election by Chevron, residents voted in favor of candidates that aligned more with community values and renewable energy. In addition to political power building, the Our Power campaign in Richmond is working to build community control and governance over essential resources, such as food, land, water, and energy.
Richmond Our Power partners with Cooperation Richmond, a local co-op incubator and loan fund designed to help low-income residents create their own cooperatively owned businesses. Cooperation Richmond’s goal is to mobilize capital into community-owned and democratically-governed projects that meet community needs, create meaningful livelihoods, and address the climate crisis. Our Power Richmond also holds an annual “Our Power” festival, bringing together residents, small businesses, and the public sector to celebrate and envision what different models of energy management and control can look like on a local level. By going deep and working to build community power in this way, the campaign is able to root itself in a whole systems approach to climate resilience that sets the stage for long term, community driven solutions.