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David Segal: Trickle-down progressivism

Recent progressive triumphs in Providence will prove to have far-reaching implications

Monday, April 17, 2006

There’s a frequently constructed binary that distinguishes the “symbolic” from the “substantive” political act. This is usually a false distinction, since any quasi-democracy should, pretty quickly, be able to convert so-called symbolic acts into substance via the electoral process. A single speech, rally or resolution might have no immediately discernable effect on policy, but a series of them can overthrow a government. (There are, of course, some actions that are more likely than others to yield instantly tangible results.)

At the Brown University Community Council meeting last week, it dawned on me that there’s an increasingly powerful interplay between the University, city and state that makes clear the substance of several recent actions, each of which has individually been derided as merely “symbolic.”

I was at that meeting in support of the emPOWER effort, which seeks to have the University commit to using 25 percent renewable energy by the year 2010. I was there to present a resolution in support of that campaign, passed last week by the City Council. It cites the commitment the state made two years ago to having 16 percent of energy statewide be derived from renewables by 2020 and the ensuing city ordinance requiring that 20 percent of municipal operations be run on renewables by 2010, making Providence the first state capital to commit to such a measure. Each of these acts individually was dismissed by detractors as frivolous, a waste of time or just too darn selfless. But now we’re on the verge of a clean sweep, with other schools, cities and states looking to join this growing movement.

Perhaps even more exciting is the quick response to Brown’s decision to divest from the Darfur genocide. Last week, Providence became the country’s first city to act to divest, and we’re getting ready to dump more than $800,000 invested in Paris-based Alcatel. Rhode Island looks poised to follow suit, per a bill sponsored by Rep. Edie Ajello, D-District 3, and Sen. Rhoda Perry P’91, D-District 3, who represent campus. Providence’s divestment made national news, with many other cities now looking to do the same. Brown’s lonely action a month ago could end up spurring billions of dollars in other divestments in coming months. And it’s all having the intended effect. Sudan’s notoriously murderous regime recently put out “An Open Letter on the Negative Impact of Divestment on Sudan,” a ridiculous propaganda piece that more or less begs, “Please, please stop divesting from us – it’s really mean!”

The Student Labor Alliance’s anti-sweatshop work at the campus level has also led to city-wide advances. Last week, the City Council passed an ordinance that forces the city to stop exploiting workers through its use of sweatshop labor to manufacture city-purchased apparel – about $1.5 million each year in uniforms for police, firefighters and student-athletes. A crucial portion of the organizing behind that campaign was coordination between city activists and Brown students to bring to town delegations of workers who actually toil under sweatshop conditions, and to build international solidarity between workers here and abroad. Soon Providence will look to join a consortium of cities that will monitor sweatshops for abuses – analogous to the college-level Workers Rights Consortium, which Brown was the first school to join five years ago.

The final item on the agenda at last week’s BUCC meeting was the potential institution of a social choice fund – a socially responsible option for those who want to donate money to the University. After some healthy debate and a presentation of evidence that a socially responsible fund could theoretically earn as much interest as a typical unrestricted portfolio, the BUCC supported the concept of such a fund.

Providence recently added a socially responsible option for city pensioners’ personal deferred compensation accounts. But because of the city’s precarious financial position, the finance director is very hesitant to restrict the ability of the city invest its $310 million general pension fund wherever, whenever – until there’s lots of evidence that it won’t hurt our bottom line.

So as Brown’s process moves forward, I hope decision-makers recognize there’s more at stake than Brown’s own donations. The city’s watching closely – and hoping for your fund’s creation and success – so we can follow your lead.

David Segal is Ward 1 City Councilman for Providence.

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