Last month, I spoke at the Metro Ministry’s 40th anniversary celebration. It was an honor to share some of my thoughts with the 300+ people at the event. Metro Ministry is one of those progressive community groups in Fresno that gets a lot done but is often times under the radar, not receiving the credit it is due.
During the presentation, I mentioned that I am on the board of directors of the Community Media Access Collaborative (CMAC) with Metro Director Richard Yanes. CMAC is the group that oversees Public, Education and Government channels on cable TV. The education and government channels are now operational and when the Public Access channel goes live later this year, it will be the largest free speech “soap box” this community has ever seen. The work Richard puts into this effort is a good example of how Metro staff works behind the scenes to improve life in the Fresno/Clovis area.
Metro has also worked tirelessly to improve the nutritional choices for children in public schools. With 85% of Fresno schoolchildren eligible for free lunches during the school year, the organization has worked hard to expand this program during the summer. Metro provides nutrition education to community- based organizations and individuals throughout Fresno County, teaching the importance of incorporating healthy foods and snacks into their families’ diet. The program also seeks to increase community knowledge on access to healthy foods.
But, it was Metro’s connection with Community Gardens that I focused on during my talk. A couple of years ago, a group of Hmong gardeners were told by the City of Fresno that they had to abandon their crops because the city was going to build a police substation at that location. The gardeners, who had permission to use the vacant lot and had put significant resources into improving the soil, were told to move on. No alternative garden location was offered to the Hmong and many people in the community felt that an injustice was taking place, because there were alternative locations for the police substation. In fact, to this day, no construction has taken place at that Belmont and DeWitt vacant lot.
A press conference was held at the garden, and resistance to the arbitrary and strong-arm tactics of the city emerged. The Hmong, represented by Mai Summer Vue, negotiated with the city and were able to hold off the immediate destruction of the gardens. Some of the more militant activists in the community suggested civil disobedience should be used to stop the city from destroying the Hmong garden. About this time, the city took aim at another community garden in the Tower District, giving many people the impression that city officials did not like to see gardens emerge from vacant lots.
As the community organized its resistance, City Hall began to come up with alternatives. City officials began suggesting alternative sites for the Hmong community garden. A park east of Clovis Avenue was suggested. It was at this time when Metro Ministry began to engage the city in negotiations about the future of this and other community gardens in Fresno. Those negotiations have led to a growing community garden movement.
What I think is significant about all of this is how it took both militant action to get the city’s attention and community leaders who could change gears and engage the city in a dialog to negotiate the establishment of community gardens as a reality in Fresno. I don’t think if community activists had just sat down in front of the bulldozers that we would have had the outcome we have today—a growing community garden movement, much of which is being built on public land. On the other hand, I don’t think we could have had a seat at the table in City Hall without having a group willing to take more militant action.
My message to everyone at the Metro Ministry’s 40th anniversary celebration was that we absolutely need groups like Metro that can engage the conservative and powerful groups in this city to reach an agreement that results in social justice for the people involved. What I might not have said as clearly or loudly as needs to be said is that we also need militant groups willing to get our attention focused on important issues and get the “powers that be” into a mood to negotiate.
The progressive movement needs to be able to use a variety of tactics and be flexible about when and how to shift strategy to achieve victories that benefit the people and organizations we support.
I believe that there are times when we need to be vocal and visible to draw attention to an issue. Public demonstrations are important, but they are not enough in and of themselves to create the change we seek. It is often necessary to engage with and negotiate with those in power to bring about the changes we desire. It is a sign of political maturity when individuals and groups understand this reality.
Sometimes, neither public demonstrations nor negotiations with power will get you where you want to be. An example of that might be the ongoing complaint that the mainstream media does not accurately report on the goals and strategies of the progressive community. Often, the mainstream media ignores or distorts what the progressive movement is attempting to do. Neither public demonstrations nor negotiating with the mainstream media are going to change the situation.
That is why progressive groups, rather than demonstrating or negotiating with those in power, sometimes build alternative/independent institutions. An example of building a positive alternative would be KFCF 88.1 FM (listener-sponsored radio) and the Community Alliance newspaper. We realize that the progressive movement in Fresno needs a voice, and we cannot force the mainstream media to accurately reflect what the groups working for peace, social and economic justice are trying to achieve. We need our own alternative/independent media to do that.
I appreciate all of the people who are working on social change—whether organizing a demonstration against an injustice in the community, lobbying elected leaders to change policies or building an alternative institution like this newspaper.
We have lots of tools in our toolbox, and we need to learn to use them effectively, not get stuck using just one tool. Rather than fighting with each other over strategies and tactics, we need to appreciate the diversity in our movement and figure out how we can work together for peace, social and economic justice. We are lucky to have groups like Metro Ministry, Peace Fresno, the Brown Berets and people willing to build alternative institutions.