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The Fight to Rescue Rhode Island: An interview with Renew RI coalition chair Monica Huertas

Out of the hundreds of bills submitted to the General Assembly, there’s a package of three bills squarely aimed at affordable housing, local food and green justice zones. They’re called the Rescue Rhode Island Act, and the legislation was drafted by a new progressive alliance, the Renew Rhode Island Coalition.

The Coalition is composed of more than 25 local groups such as the Black Lives Matter PAC, DARE, the George Wiley Center, and many more.
Monica Huertas is co-chair of the coalition and founder of the People’s Port Authority (formerly known as No LNG in PVD), itself also a member of Renew RI. Huertas has long been a mainstay in Providence community organizing, fighting fossil fuel production in South Providence Neighborhoods, helping to start the Racial and Environmental Justice Committee, and running for an open city council seat in Providence in 2019.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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Alex Kithes (Motif): You’ve spent many years fighting against the fossil fuel infrastructure, pollution and environmental racism that the city and state have imposed on your community of South Providence. Could you tell our readers about that environmental justice work, about The People’s Port Authority, and about the health and other impacts that fossil fuel pollution has had on your neighborhood?

Monica Huertas: From the beginning, it was the fact that I grew up in deep poverty, and faced years and years of homelessness. And finally, I was able to purchase a little piece of the American dream. And I wanted to grow vegetables and have my chickens outside and everything, and folks said “No, Monica, you can’t throw some seeds out there because it’s polluted.” I had heard about lead poisoning and things like that – because my brother had lead poisoning – and I thought it was from apartments. I didn’t think it would be in my house that I had just bought! Even though it’s an old house, not my little piece of land, right?

I started doing the research. And in fact, yeah – we have one of the oldest housing stocks in the country, and it’s polluted. So that’s when it really started – we started No LNG in PVD, and simultaneously I was a founding member of the Racial and Environmental Justice Committee.

Environmental racism is unwanted people – unwanted members of society, usually Black and brown folks, and Asian, and poor folks – being poisoned with unwanted chemicals and things that other people don’t want, even though they use them, too. For example, the cement and tar [factories] that we have here in South Providence that smell really bad. That’s tar and cement! We aren’t the only ones that use that, but we are the ones that are overburdened and have everything. Why do we have to have all the tar, all the cement, all the jet fuel oil – that everybody else uses – in our neighborhood. We are overburdened.

And that’s where the Racial and Environmental Justice Committee and the People’s Port Authority come in; really to give community members the education around all these toxic chemicals and storage tanks, and also to be a cohesive voice to get some of these changes.

AK: How did the coalition come together? What have been your primary goals while building it and bringing groups to the table? What makes it different from other coalitions in the state?

MH: We came together a year ago with the idea that we’re sick of playing Whac-a-Mole. We’re sick of having to organize and bring the community together every single time something is proposed down here.

We started with grassroots organizations that were already doing the work. We didn’t want to re-create the wheel, and we didn’t want to leave the most marginalized voices out of the table. Because that’s what happens with other policy coalitions – they’ll meet among themselves, a couple of people, and then all of a sudden say “hey, what does the community think about this?”

We can’t keep doing that. Enough of that. That’s the bullshit that’s kept us in this loop, and in these destructive ways of being. Communities aren’t involved, and then people come together without them. The fact of the matter is that there are policies and ways of cleaning up – say the port for example – ways that other places and other countries are doing it. But if there’s no community input and community buy-in, then we’re going to end up with the same mess that we have now.

AK: One thing that has struck a lot of folks I’ve talked to is how elegant the Rescue Rhode Island package is, the way it uses comprehensive policy to decarbonize while simultaneously increasing housing and food access, creating jobs, and working to undo systemic racism. Tell me a little about the three bills. How did you land on the targeted policies of food, housing, and green justice zones, and the specific goals of each policy?

MH: From the beginning, we knew that we wanted to get pieces from the Green New Deal, with a lot of equity and justice and people at the table. We initially landed on the housing part. Because of the amount of housing that we need, we can really make some huge transformations. Both in the
current stock that we have now, and in building new housing.

So we went back and forth a little on that. And then the question was: Who’s going to build all these things? So naturally, that meant jobs. And not just jobs, but good quality jobs for everybody, that don’t discriminate. And then we asked, “So who’s going to have those jobs?” We know that BIPOC folks disproportionately get left out of jobs, so they’re at the front. And again, because we were able to build such a coalition, such a diverse group of folks, especially marginalized folks, we were able to pinpoint and put all these things forward. Because the community knows what they need. We know what we need, and we know what we want, and we know what to do to get there.

And then, the Green Justice Zones policy, which is the one I’m the most proud of because it comes out of the work that the Racial and Environmental Justice Committee has been doing for the past five years.
We’ve been working to get community folks educated on environmental issues, and join some boards, and join some policy and decision-making bodies, so they can represent BIPOC folks in Providence at these different stages.

One of the things I like about this is that it takes out the polluters, and then it brings new things in!

Things that the community wants. It’s going to be a lot of community input, through a board set up by a vote. It’s not just saying “all wind turbines and solar panel companies, welcome”. No. You have to good hiring practices, good practices of where you get your materials from, you have to have a certain ethics and equity attached to your company if you want to go into our port. So the community will be able to give input, and the community – through referendum – can say, “We want to change all the pipes in our homes, or we want to retrofit all the homes with solar panels.”

And these aren’t new things. We modeled this off of a bill from New Jersey that says that no new infrastructure can go into their port – so we put that into ours as well. We’re seeing a lot of models of other countries, and other places, and other states doing this. It’s doable, and we’re really glad to bring
it to Rhode Island in a good and just and equitable way.

AK: If the legislation passes, what effects would it have on South Providence? Which other communities and areas in the state would be most heavily impacted by these policies?

MH: That’s exactly what we don’t want them [fossil fuel companies] to do – leave the Port of Providence and go to Woonsocket or Pawtucket or Central Falls or other poor communities. So that’s what we want to be really careful about. I think that we should make those areas Green Justice Zones so
that they can’t go there. The policy says that you can’t leave a Green Justice Zone just to go to another poor community. I think everybody will benefit from this.

The idea is that we start with us, but that it can expand to other cities and states that have an urban core that is very polluted. We want to bring not only the Green Justice Zones, but retrofitting homes and urban farms to everywhere and everyone that wants them.

AK: I wanted to ask about a couple of specific types of impacts. What are the legislation’s anticipated effects on the price of energy, food, and housing around the state? And how do you see Rhode Island’s local agricultural landscape looking, say, five years from now if the legislation
passes?

MH: I predict that food will be cheaper, because we’re not getting it from these monocrop cultures down in Kansas, shipped here, and produced in a really bad way – not only by exploiting the workers, but produced in a non-organic way with tons of pesticides.

I hope and dream that within the next five years, we’re going to have lots of new small farms crop up in Rhode Island, throughout New Hampshire and Maine and the other New England states, to supply food for us and create this very local chain where we can feed each other and not rely on those huge farms.

I’m looking forward to that very much.

AK: What has the response been so far in the General Assembly? Has Senate or House leadership weighed in? Have you been given an idea as to which committees the bills will be sent to?

MH: Not yet. It’s been kind of slow as of our last check-in that I had with some of the General Assembly members. There’s a lot of buzz around the policy, and people saying, “This is cool.” But if you really think it’s cool, then sign your ass onto it!

There have been a lot of Senators and Reps that have picked it up in the State House, the usual folks and also some others as well. And what we’re saying: we’re going to push this as hard as we can. And if it doesn’t pass, and you’re a rep or senator who’s giving us shit, then guess what: we’re going to run people against you who are going to win and going to pass it! And that’s what we’re going to keep doing.

AK: Say you’re talking to someone in the community who doesn’t know much about the ins and outs of climate and environmental justice, but is generally supportive. How would you get them on board with the Rescue Rhode Island Act?

MH: It’s easy once you say, “This is what we’ve been fighting for, and it’s all in one comprehensive plan.” We’ve been fighting for housing, we’ve been fighting for jobs, we’ve been fighting for clean air and water, and we’ve been fighting for equity and justice. Every Black and brown folk, every
poor folk out here knows that. It’s their lived experience. So once we say that, they’re on board very quickly and excited to help.

AK: More broadly, what is the coalition’s plan to expand public support among people and organizations across Rhode Island?

MH: We keep talking to people! Last night, we went to the Southside Neighborhood Association, and there were folks from the NAACP who said, “This is amazing! Let’s talk.” So every time we go to talk to two people, two or three others find out and call us. It’s a whole process.

But also, we’ve been particular about who we have signed on from the beginning. We want to grow our coalition and make it as big as possible, but we also want to talk to folks, see what their values and ideas are, and what they would and wouldn’t be willing to compromise on.

We’re also looking outside the box. For example, the Coalition Against Domestic Violence is signing on.

We just had a conversation with them and they were really excited. They saw what points we meshed on – and we meshed on a lot of the environmental, and jobs, and housing points with what they’re doing. I’m really happy that we’ve been able to expand.

AK: How has the COVID-19 pandemic made the problems that are being addressed by this legislative package worse?

MH: We started a couple of weeks before the pandemic started, probably in January [of 2020]. And then COVID happened. But we quickly realized that, if COVID has to do with the lungs, then we’re absolutely going to be the most affected because we already have lung issues.

Everything has been exacerbated: the housing crisis has been exacerbated, the job situation has been exacerbated – tons of people have lost their jobs, especially low-income and minimum wage workers and single-parent households, especially single moms; if they haven’t lost their housing, they’re going to very soon. We’re in a dire situation, and I know that this is the best way forward for all of us.

AK: The legislation is just about to be formally introduced into the General Assembly. That’s a pretty big step! What are the next steps for the coalition? Do you have any other legislation in mind for this term or the future?

MH: Obviously for the future, we’re going to keep pushing, and once this passes we’re going to keep adding stuff. For example, in the housing bill we just ended up putting in new infrastructure. So we want to increase that to older housing stock, because a lot of our housing is really old.

And we’re going to keep pushing. Altogether, we have six bills if you want to think about it that way – three in the House, three in the Senate. We’re very excited, to keep pushing and keep door knocking. We had over 50 volunteers doing a literature drop last weekend in Rep Blazejewski’s area.

We’re going to keep building our coalition, keep door knocking, keep doing lit drops; very grassroots organizing, a people-powered movement. It’s the new way, but the old way; going back to our old ways of doing stuff.

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