Finest Worksong. Interview #2 with Aaron Lehmer, Bay Localize by Willi Paul, Magazine
Finest Worksong. Interview #2 with Aaron Lehmer, Target="blank">Bay Localize by Willi Paul, Magazine

'Take your instinct by the reins
Your better best to rearrange
What we want and what we need
Has been confused, been confused (blow your horn)

The time to rise has been engaged
You're better best to rearrange
I'm talking here to me alone
I listen to the finest worksong

Another chance has been engaged
To throw Thoreau and rearrange

Your finest hour (blow your horn)
Your finest hour (blow your song)
Your finest hour'

my first interview with Aaron.

How has Occupy Oakland impacted your goals and programs?

We've had the honor of witnessing and participating in the birth of the Bay Area's Occupy movement right across the street from our offices in downtown Oakland - where young and old; black, white, and brown; the homeless, the unemployed, and everyday concerned residents united in common cause toward an economy that works for all and sustains our precious planet.
Some have asked whether the Occupy movement has clearly articulated its goals, or whether its early tactics of encampments, taking over vacant buildings, etc. are appropriate. True or not, the Occupy movement clearly has broken our country's decades-old silence around economic disparity and injustice like no other in recent memory. And that, more than anything, has provided us all with a new opening for vital discussion and revisioning around the kind of society we truly wish to become.

Toward that end, we've been doing our part:

• Co-hosting the Bay Area Convening on Resilience and Equity to create a shared vision and action plan for a socially just and resilient region. On November 11, over 150 youth, community advocates, and policymakers gathered at the California Endowment in downtown Oakland to chart a path for equitable resilience throughout the SF Bay Area.

• Releasing our new video, Who Ate the Economy?, to focus the debate around economic fairness. The video offers a colorful and persuasive take on the root causes of our current crisis - with timely solutions for moving toward a fair, resilient economy.

• Strengthening our local food system by promoting fresh food access in communities around the Bay. At the November 2nd General Strike, we partnered with local groups to host a Food Justice Tent on the Oakland plaza, where we shared the urgency of taking back control of our food and land base from corporate control. We also offered free healthy and locally-produced food, a permaculture presentation, as well as discussions on seed saving, urban agriculture, and uniting our food movements.

• Reclaiming our energy future by ensuring that cities build up their clean energy assets for the benefit of our communities and local ecology. Our 90-member Local Clean Energy Alliance has helped spur progress in San Francisco, Sonoma County, and Richmond, where local advocates have made progress in developing Community Choice energy programs to assert local control of their energy systems.

One of the most important ironies and personal challenges for me moving forward is access to land. How does Bay Localize map, negotiate and transform urban land for community food production?

Bay Localize's Grow Local campaign is working hard to make urban agriculture more accessible, sustainable, and economically viable. We need more community gardens, urban farms, and living roofs. We need more accessible, culturally relevant, fresh, healthy foods for everyday people, especially those in low-income neighborhoods. To do this, Bay Localize is bringing together a diverse cross-section of community members to advance a more locally resilient, socially just food economy.

So far, our Grow Local campaign has worked from the ground up, connecting grassroots community efforts with policy efforts at the local level. We have built and revitalized rooftop and community gardens, partnered with the San Francisco Urban Ag Alliance to legalize food growing and selling throughout the city, and organized a broad, diverse coalition in Oakland to ramp up urban ag in the heart of the East Bay.

Right now in Oakland, the Planning Department is developing a city-wide update of its zoning code for urban agriculture. We're striving for deeper community involvement to build our vision for a more humane, ecological and neighbor-friendly urban ag sector. In addition to the re-zoning effort, we're working to reform the rules around access to public parkland and vacant lots. For parks, we're working to develop a clear, transparent process for community groups and urban farmers to apply for use of those lands for food growing and selling. Similarly, we're working with city officials to develop a policy that would create secure access to private lots that are now blighted or vacant.

Is permaculture a strategy or a principle there? Neither?

Absolutely! Most of the urban farmers in our coalition practice permaculture principles in their gardens, using little to no "waste" and working with nature's cycles and rhythms wherever possible. We also "stack functions" in our organizing efforts by coming together to host garden workdays where we not only help create new physical spaces for food growing, but educate folks about food justice, proper urban farming techniques, and policy campaigns to scale up local solutions.

What are the most difficult Bay Localize values to implement in urban neighborhoods?

Two of the most challenging values for us to actualize are local self-reliance and social equity. And yet both are critically necessary for us to transition toward a resilient economy that can weather the growing storms of climate change and energy and water scarcity. Since our infrastructure is geared toward maximum extraction and consumption of natural resources and global trade flows, it remains extremely difficult to develop a local economy that's producing it's own food, water, energy, and other goods for regional consumption.

But we can go a long way toward achieving that vision through urban and regional organic agriculture, water conservation, efficiency, and rainwater catchment strategies, as well as rooftop solar, regional wind, and tidal/wave energy. We simply need to redirect resources now going to fossil fuel-based systems, and toward low-energy, community-scaled solutions that harness our local resources, human talent, and cultural assets.

On the issue of equity, that may be even more challenging to address since decades of underinvestment in our cities, overt discrimination, and historical inequities have left many in extreme poverty, with failing schools, and fewer and fewer opportunities. If we want a society that's truly whole, in which conflict does not rule our politics and our relationships, we need to dramatically decrease economic inequality to ensure that everyone has access to the basic necessities for a healthy, safe, and dignified life for themselves and their families. A resilient community demands nothing less.

You are the Campaigns Director. What is a Campaign? Can you give us an example - soup to nuts - from a recent project?

Yes, a "campaign" is an advocacy effort that calls for social change in some way. That might mean a policy campaign for legal change around how food, water, or energy is managed at the local or state level. It might mean an educational campaign to raise awareness of the importance of resilience and equity in regional planning. Anything that mobilizes people into greater consciousness and action around a particular issue or cause. A good example is our Grow Local Campaign to change the rules of the game for urban agriculture to encourage more local food growing and selling in our cities. Another is our Community Choice Energy Campaign to transform cities and counties into energy buying and investment coops.

How do you evaluate your success these days? Has this process changed since you started?

We evaluate success on a number of levels. When we first started, very few groups were talking about the importance of resilience in their organizing or economic development strategies. Now we're seeing it used almost everywhere. That's progress. There has also been an amazing proliferation of urban farming an local food justice organizations cropping up in recent years, leading to the creation of dozens of new urban farms and food micro-enterprises.

At least four cities and counties are starting their own Community Choice Energy programs. We played a small part in those, which I think demonstrates some level of progress. True success will come when these emerging models move from being "alternative" or "on the margins" to being the new norm, where most people's food and energy are being provided from sustainable, regional sources, and most people have access to those options. We've still got a long way to go.

Can you grow alternative economy within the current one? What are the alt-econ strategies that are most promising?

Definitely, but only up to a point. In addition to the local food and energy efforts now underway, there are some exciting new models that are emerging to develop local economies from the ground-up. I'm impressed with the Bay Area Community Exchange (BACE), which is much like a local community bank, but where folks keep track of services they offer one another by the hour. For every hour you spend doing something for someone you earn one hour to use to have someone do something for you.

Very simple concept, but potentially very radical in contrast to today's isolated, impersonal economy. I'm also encourage by all the good work that's going on to promote economic coops as a way to pool people's limited resources, build up the local economy, and create more collaborative workplaces. The City of Richmond just hired a full-time staff person to promote economic coops, and the East Bay Community Law Center and Sustainable Economies Law Center are both doing good work to promote legal and economic literacy around starting and sustaining coops.

Is Bay Localize meeting its program goals across the entire economic spectrum: poor, middle class and wealthy?

As noted above, we've got a long way to go. But we've noticed that when it comes to community resilience and food justice, the movement is becoming more ethnically and economically diverse, with folks from a wide range of backgrounds coming together to heed the call for fundamental change. All our programs are explicitly designed to focus on ensuring access to resources by everyone in our communities. Those of us who are in a position of privilege (i.e., we have regular access to resources, and perhaps even historical benefits that others have been denied) have a special obligation to stand in solidarity with those who have been excluded or exploited in the past so that we can forge common ground in building the new economy of the future. We're trying to do that by bringing new leaders into the movement, and ensuring that the voices of the community are heard at City Hall when decisions that affect them are at play.

Do you find any value in Linda Buzzell's Transition Career Options? ( ) Why / why not?

Most definitely. In addition to challenging the "Big Lie" that the old fossil fuel-powered industrial economy is the only legitimate one, Linda has nicely broken down a whole series of career trajectories and options that will become increasingly important in the years and decades ahead. Another great resource on preparing oneself personally for the great transition is Sacred Demise: Walking The Spiritual Path of Industrial Civilization's Collapse by Carloyn Baker.

Give us an integrated economic vision for the bay area in 2025? How are you developing and sharing such a vision?

In 2006, we published a white paper, Building a Resilient and Equitable Bay Area, in partnership with BALLE, Redefining Progress, International Forum on Globalization, and the Center for Sustainable Economy. It offers a comprehensive vision "to bolster the Bay Area's economy by emphasizing small, locally owned, ecologically sustainable, and equitably distributed businesses in the energy, food, transportation, housing, manufacturing, and financial sectors. We believe there is overwhelming public support for all nine Bay Area counties and their cities to work together to devise and implement an economic localization strategy for these sectors (and others) through a creative mix of both public and private sector initiatives. " The SF Bay Guardian also editorialized in favor of our vision when it was released.

Are you pro or anti capitalism? Neither?

Personally, I'm opposed to any system that privileges one group (e.g., investors, bureaucrats, etc.) over others in deciding how our economy should develop. No economy is purely capitalist, socialist, or whatever. It's always a mix along a spectrum. The real challenge for us all is that the old growth-based economy is coming to an end. As we enter the inevitable arc of oil and gas depletion, it will be imperative to build up local and regional economic systems to compensate for the progressive breakdown in long-distance, fossil fueled transport lines. When you add in the growing ravages to arable land and water supplies already happening worldwide due to climate change, the need for vibrant, robust local economic systems becomes all the more paramount. So if you had to put a label on the kind of economy we're advocating, you might call it community-driven bio-regionalism. Such an economy would combine some of the dynamism of markets (preferably with locally rooted enterprises and coops) and the important infrastructure investment, regulatory, and social cohesion functions of government (funded preferably through taxes on natural resources, pollution, and concentrated wealth).

Do we need new symbols, stories and/or language to engineer the new economy?

We are in desperate need of new stories and frameworks to guide us into new possibilities for a vibrant, resilient future. I'm particularly excited to see Starhawk's Fifth Sacred Thing film project underway, which will be a feature-length movie about the rise of a green and flourishing San Francisco that was built out of the social and political breakdowns of the early 21st century. I'm also encouraged by new conscious media efforts like Pacha's Pajamas that seek to raise the ecological consciousness of young people by using the power of social media and popular culture.

Are there unique urban and rural needs and solutions to the present unsustainable economy?

Most certainly. In the more rural counties of the Bay Area like Sonoma, Marin, Solano, Napa, and Contra Costa, they are more reliant on roads and highways to get from one place to the next. That is making the cost of commuting and doing business increasingly prohibitive as gas prices rise. In addition, those counties are struggling to meet the growing demand for housing while also wanting to protect their vibrant agricultural sectors. We can help bridge the gap by building up more reliable, fast transit systems and live/work centers to reduce the need to commute. And we can preserve precious agricultural lands by increasing the urban demand for rural products through Community-Supported Agriculture, farmers' markets, and direct purchasing by larger institutions like schools and hospitals.

Eventually, as fossil fuel prices continue to rise, it will become necessary to retire more and more of the oil-powered machinery and bring more folks from urban areas back to rural areas to work the land and start their own farming enterprises. Author Richard Heinberg estimates that we'll need up to 50 million farmers in the US to replace all the work we now get from fossil fuels in agriculture. I suspect we'll see a progressive re-occupation of rural areas in the decades to come, which will create many new challenges. But it will also create many exciting new opportunities to reconnect with the land, and revitalize our rural economy.

There are so many sources of fear. How can we build a lasting love?

I think people fear an uncertain future, and wonder about their place in it. Young people know that more than anyone, having experienced high levels of unemployment and insecurity after graduating high school and college in recent years. Change is always scary on some level. But it's also inevitable. By opening ourselves up to the changes ahead, and aligning our spirits, talents, and visions with a more localized future, we can literally become co-creators of a new world. The faceless global economy of the past is giving way to a relationship economy that's rooted in community. That is a shift that should be celebrated. Doing it with loving kindness will help make it a lasting transition that all can embrace and live into.

* * * * * * *

Aaron's Bio -

Mr. Lehmer co-founded Bay Localize, serves as Campaigns Director, publishes Bay Localize News, and helps coordinate its outreach and communications efforts. He also serves on the Oakland Climate Action Coalition Steering Committee, the Oakland Food Policy Council, and Earth Island Institute's Program Committee. Aaron holds an M.A. in Globalization and the Environment from Humboldt State University and a triple B.A. in Anthropology, Philosophy, and Environmental Studies from Iowa State University. He also worked for the Ella Baker Center's Green-Collar Jobs Campaign, Circle of Life, Earth Island Institute, Grassroots Globalization Network, ReThink Paper, and with the Student Environmental Action Coalition. His commentaries have been featured on AlterNet, KPFA,and NPR, in the Earth Island Journal, Sacramento News & Review, Permaculture Activist, Energy Bulletin, Oakland Tribune, and the S.F. Bay Guardian. Aaron lives in Oakland and is an avid gardener, hiker, singer, and amateur astronomer.

Connections -

Aaron Lehmer
Bay Localize Campaigns Director
aaron at
(510) 834-0420