A Star is Born: Community Transformation at the Nexus of Social and Environmental Justice

Submitted by Sudhir Kade on Sat, 07/12/2008 - 18:44.


Back in January of 2007 I first proposed the application of innovative, sustainably powered aquaponics in tandem with organic farming to uplift underprivileged communities and resolve urban blight.  East Cleveland, where we have worked for years now, to facilitate positive change, remains a tremendous opportunity for Urban aquaponics integration, especially given the extraordinary connections falling into place recently toward the Star Neighborhood Vision.  A two-year quest to secure financially viable and socially redeeming use for the old Hough Bakeries building has finally manifested, through trial and tribulation, with the likely emergence of multiple schools at the Star Village, as it is now called, on Lakeview in East Cleveland.  REALNEO and Star Neighborhood Development founder Norm Roulet deserves kudos for perservering through political turbulence and facilitating the key connections to make this work.  

Its been truly enjoyable to participate in these efforts as a colleague and thought partner in this work over the years, from visiting various cultural institutions in the neighborhood years ago, to envisioning meaningful applications of FOSS technology to uplift the community through innovative mapping and open source education opportunities that nicely complement prior efforts by REALNEO to bring innovative and useful technology to the city.  In terms of innovation, one of our most exciting efforts surrounds aquaponics and community gardening as a sustainable mechanism for revenue generation that provides valuable educational benefit and workforce development opportunity.  I cannot help but re-emphasize the synergy possible with organic gardening in tandem with aquaculture in helping to close waste-to-food loops and (especially in closed systems), achieve impressive water conservation and waste reduction numbers.

 It is also validating to witness the development of a transformational system that nicely incorporates the cornerstones I developed that comprise our website taxonomy - and the entire Star vision, like any good holistic model, does just that.  Arts and Culture are represented in the partnership of the ASHE Cultural Center in helping to create a new media arts center and school and integration of arts for the Marcus Garvey charter school, not to mention the inculcation of the sound cultural values demonstrated by Dr. Whitaker's work with both ASHE and in Ghana with his cybervillage model.  The Marcus Garvey school is founded on celebration of African American culture and identity and it will be exciting to see these insitutions move forward and all synergistically benefit in the process.  Of course the entire reconstruction effort requires great design skill as well, and it has been exciting to attend meetings with Norm at Studio Techne architects and appreciate the artistic talents of designers like Mr. Chicarelli in person.

I've long had passion for both social and environmental justice and as a proponent for green jobs facilitation nothing was more satisfying than seeing a Second Chance (third strike offenders) school come into play in the form of the PACE academy.  As I addressed in prior blog posts, a necessary component toward social justice is the destigmatization of offenders to enable redirection to viable vocations that mitigate crime and stimulate economy.   How serendipitous, then, to meet recently with the PACE personnel and discuss the creation of two new and green vocational tracks that enable the urban farming and smart property rennovations this very community sorely requires.  The experiential education opportunity for ex-offenders, timed with the growing demand for these services worldwide, help ensure the aforementioned vital viable vocations that deter criminal activity by presenting enriching and stimulating alternatives.   Students will be empowered and held accountable by the educational institutions that train them, but more importantly by the fact that they will be working and learning by building and improving their future homes and community.

Even greater synergy results when these vocations are of the green-collar variety, as environmental benefits become significant through these green efforts. East Cleveland not only benefits aesthically but tangibly in terms of air, soil, and water quality.  The Environment cornerstone comes into play nicely here.  Connections with the appropriate training facilitites and partnerships with relevant partners in biofuel, solar, wind, and geothermal create other exciting green-job tracks - and what better environs to learn and work than the community surrounding these schools?  Partnerships with vocational training centers like the Job Corps and Community Colleges like CCC and their Green academy make logical partners to expand the green jobs portfolio beyond property rennovation and urban farming.   Great examples have been set in this arena by bioneers like Van Jones.

Which brings us to perhaps the most important work and cornerstone of all, Education.  This speaks to the heart of the matter, and while the strategic partnerships with communities and universities will be important, I am most interested in the cultivation of the next generation of smart, talented, and enlightened youngsters.  These Star schools at Lakeview will be a key opportunity to mold such this transformational generation and overcome the unfair disadvantages created by lead poisoning and inferior school standards.  I look forward to personal involvement in cirriculum design and instruction with others over time as this takes root.   There is a nice core of talent growing in EC already - the success of Shaw High's marching band and its participation in China are great stories that deserve more press.  Integrating smart 'fast tracks' to entrepreneurship and technology will be key Star goals as well.  A multitude of Intergenerational learning benefits will come into play as seniors plant  - and grow - alongside children.

Innovation is a hallmark and the Technology cornerstone represents a great wild card to help accelerate and enable outcomes.  Information sharing and transparency are key drivers of positive change, and technology like the FOSS solutions embraced by REALNEO and drive this very website will be in terrific demand over time.   This fits our Star Lab vision perfectly - and previously secured equipment will be useful in developing a creative site for Open Source learning.   Open source applications to community development and transformation are growing in number and depth and represent new and exciting funding opportunity.  I'll be meeting soon with some young, talented Drupal developers to talk about helping us drive an unprecedented open source GIS mapping and learning task for East Cleveland.  It will be exciting to see new paradigms in computer science education develop at the Star that allow underprivileged children fast-tracks to technology careers that might  leapfrog antiquated computer science tracks at traditional universities.   The non-proprietary nature of FOSS technology makes for a welcome fiscal bonus as well - avoiding significant license and renewal fees entirely.  Community building is virtually synonymous with open source and these FOSS portals, like REALNEO and Green City Blue Lake have already proven their mettle in this arena of sustainable community development. 

Health is a vital cornerstone on individual, community, and environmental levels.  Its fascinating to see how all of these cornerstones intersect and integrate with one another to create new points of value.  Organic farms and community gardens will bring health benefits to the entire community on many levels.  Superior nutrition facilitates better learning, as many studies have illustrated.  Gardening has been linked to a number of mental health benefits, and community health benefits through intergenerational interaction natural to this model as well.  The vibrant pedestrian fabric laced with greenspace will facilitate physical fitness as walking and biking becomes the preferred mode of travel due to fuel and energy cost disincentives.  Technology will hasten accress to medical information and clearly education will provide the key awareness of information needed for proper preventative health practices.  The ever-present lead poisoning epidemic will be abated through a combination of these efforts - combining top nutrition, abatement of lead through smart property renovation and deconstruction, and rigorous testing and physical and psychological treatment.  A recent award of 25K to East Cleveland for being Kaboom's most 'Playful City, USA' was a nice high point earlier this year and will create additional healthy and green play-space for youngsters in Forest Hills park.

Finally we come to the Crux of the matter, sustainable and locally-sourced Economy.  This is accomplished through the smart integration of all the approaches delineated above.  Workforce development is accomplished and generated Environmental benefit through experiential and intergenerational education.   New tax revenues are generated for the city to be better able to provide requiste public goods and services for the community.  Innovations inspired by these new teaching paradigms will create new entrepreneurial opportunity (particularly rich in social returns on investment) and can be accelerated through the creation of business incubators across disciplines.   And by its local-basis, these economic benefits will be better retained by the community to benefit all its residents.  There is no reason why East Cleveland cannot become a vital destination for innovative learning and training - a thought center and thriving place that could be likened regionally to Cuba globally.  

My, what a  journey these efforts have been! As I mentioned in the presentation entitled Envision East Cleveland to Mayor Goggins at City Hall four years ago, sustainable design through an integrated and holistic approach of these six cornerstones will transform this community.  I ended the presentation with an innovative organizational design for which I won the Thompson Hine award at Case which I indicated could be of great benefit to any organization or group of organizations working toward sustainable outcomes through the integration of key disciplines.  Assembling workforce collectives with such a model, I explained, would bring synergies into play and better enable effective whole systems learning and communication for East Cleveland collaboratives and cooperatives.  This design could be perfect for an Urban Farming or Property Rehab Collective, for example, because it ensures equitable empowerment, accountability, transparency and growth over time.

The pace and success with which these transformational outcomes can be effected can benefit from innovative models inculcated with leading edge practices.  They can be further proliferated with effective and meaningful models for collaboration that integrate siloed sectors: nonprofit, for-profit, government, and educational.  My current efforts are focused on best-practices research across many of these initiatives.  There can be no better learning opportunity than following up such rigorous research with meaningful design and implementation and NOW is the time to execute!   So by all means I invite the entire community to learn and participate alongside us - and very much look forward to Tuesday's discussion with thought leaders like Maurice Small on the future of urban farming and aquaponics, here in East Cleveland.  Since raising this possibility I've witnessed impressive innovations that strive to integrate these approaches - I believe we can reach beyond these to ones even more innovative and sustainable for the EC.  Simply put, I am proud to be part of the Star planning and development vision and encourage others to join the cause!