In this time of extreme climate change, when environmental issues are even more pressing than ever, a very special thing is happening in upstate NY: Chase Randell and Cassandra Taylor, two educators who got fed up with theoretical conversation, decided to put a sustainable framework into practice. Both Chase and Cassandra believe that environmentalism is a social justice issue and agree that it is the next generation of young people who are most important to our future.
Out of this shared belief they created the Underground Center (UGC): a charitable 501(c)(3) grassroots non-profit dedicated to researching, practicing and sharing ways of living that are both sustainable and socially just. Nectar News had the privilege of interviewing both Chase and Cassandra about this ground-breaking work.
NN: Tell me about the origin of the Underground Center. How did you come upon the idea for this programming?
Chase: The basic premise of our center was created from our experience over the last 6 years of working in sustainability and community organizing and seeing that a lot of the movement is based around only wealthy white people – which is really a hindrance to sustainability. In reaction to this observation, we created a training center where people can come experiment, brainstorm, and strategize ways to transition our world and society into a more sustainable and socially just one. We focus on ways of meeting our needs without exploiting people and our environment. For example, ways of growing food that don’t use chemical fertilizers and thus destroy the soil; ways of creating economic models that are more cooperative – not profit driven, but instead based on mutual aid. We look at how to coordinate labor so that people are motivated and have incentive to work, but its not based on a hierarchical profit model where people on the bottom get squeezed. That’s the premise. And the site is a place to brainstorm and look at theoretical frameworks of change and practice techniques: alternative ways of building, alternative ways of growing, infrastructure techniques. It is also a place to catalyze a local movement and get the youth and kids from traditionally marginalized groups to lead that transition. We want to show them that its possible and important, and actually give them the tools to empower them to make the change our society needs.
Cassandra: Yes, Chase and I are both educators, so when we first discussed how we wanted the center to go we both wanted education to be at the core. We needed a place where people could come and discuss how these environmental issues are impacting their communities and what we can do in our communities today. Also to a place to dialogue about the past and discuss how can we change social movements to include environmentalism. We were thinking about it from that point of view and so we started having students come and experience what it means to live off grid. That experience helped us realize that one of the biggest problems with education is that we compartmentalize so much. It’s harder to get older generations to change, but if young kids are exposed to it from the get-go, changes become natural to them. So we decided the programming had to include all of these things. College-aged students who learn and develop a theoretical framework about what we should do, and learn skills alongside high school/middle school aged kids, and then we all help teach the little ones healthy habits and how to grow food. And all of it is a local, youth driven initiative that starts with how to put ideas into practice. It’s important to have a place where kids and young adults will be able to look at the history of social justice movements and worker movements and to ask analytical questions like, “How did they come about ?” “How did they fail?” and “Where did environmentalism come into it?” and most importantly,” What can we do now?” And from there we move beyond theory and actually come up with a game plan and try it with young people in the community. So that is the trajectory of the UGC.
NN: How long has the Underground Center been in practice and holding those workshops?
Chase: We started this work in 2011 when a group of us formed “The Long Spoon Collective.” The idea behind the collective was to share resources and build infrastructure, and we had a lot of success. Out of this collective we built the Saugerties Food Share which is still going and is a network of people sharing gardens. We work the gardens together and share the food and have free farmer’s markets.
We started on 2 acres of an underutilized farm which Cassandra and I were given access to and we got a group of people together to start growing food together and sharing labor and resources. We started having what we called “food shares.” We had people show up and receive free, fresh food, the goal being for people to see what is possible – you don’t have to be an expert, you don’t have to have a lot of money, you just need to share resources. We have land here, we have labor, we can build soil – so let’s do that. And that grew into a more organized project where we had four gardens and we had these educational workshops where every food share we would share a different skill. For example, how to make acorn flower or how to make a compost toilet. It was really successful and people were really excited about it, but what I started to realize was the demographic that we were reaching was almost 100% white and mostly upper-middle class to wealthy folk in the area, and mostly older people. We also noticed that the people that were coming were also people that didn’t need food! They were people who were already into the idea of eating organic food, and we weren’t getting people motivated to do this work themselves. So there were a lot of people that were really supportive and really into it because of the community, we got a huge fan base, and started this community movement and that program is still going.
Me and Cassandra decided to try a different approach. We wanted to focus more on young folks who don’t have money in this area and on people of color who are underrepresented and misrepresented in this work. So we started the Underground Center as a way to empower poor people and marginalized folks to create things like the food share network on their own. We started an apprenticeship program where we have kids come to our center and we teach them skills. Right now we are working on a timber framed out-door kitchen. In the process they are learning the basics of carpentry and learning timber framing. We also are creating three new gardens, the food from which will go to the Boys & Girls Club. So these kids are coming, they are learning these skills, and we give them a small stipend. Every three times that they come we give them $100.00, which is not a lot but they are learning for free and getting something to cover their time. Once they learn the skills we connect them with local employment as well, so we set up the opportunities for them to practice the skills they are learning here in real jobs. For example, we just did a workshop about solar electrics and a woman I know who wanted a solar set up in her home hired two of the kids who had taken the workshop to build that for her for pay. The idea is to encourage them by showing them a frame-work in how we are building the center and give them the tools so that they can see that as a viable way of life and see it as a way to meet their needs, to help people, and to see that we really can live sustainably.
NN: As co-founders it sounds like you and Chase bring a shared passion but also different skills to the table:
Cassandra: Definitely. Different but complimentary. I think we represent two sides of the same coin, especially when it comes to our lived experiences. Chase grew up poor and rurally. I grew up in Milwaukee in this busy city. I’m from a working class Black family, grew up in a working class Black neighborhood, but like the majority of African Americans my family’s immediate roots are rural (Mississippi) and poor. And so we we are looking at our work from these two points of view that actually merge into solid, common ground.
NN: You’ve mentioned a few challenges. What are other challenges you have faced in the early stages of this program?
Chase: There have been many challenges. The first is that we are talking about doing a lot of work and taking responsibility and not asking the people who are in charge to make the change. We are doing it ourselves and a big challenge is getting young people to be motivated to do that, especially young people who have gotten the short end of the stick a lot in their lives. It’s really unfair in a sense to ask people who are oppressed and who have had to work two, three, four times as hard as some of their more privileged peers to be the leaders to make this change in the world. But I think the reality is that it’s the most viable way to make the change – to engage the people who the system already isn’t working for and get them to take responsibility. It has been a challenge to get that message across but it’s happening through the work.
Another big challenge has been explaining the concept to people. It is a bit unorthodox. We’re not a business, we don’t have a product that we’re selling. Our product is a changed society. Parts of it can seem abstract. People get excited but a lot of times they don’t really understand what we are doing. So how to move forward and get support from people when we don’t have a clear “marketing slogan” has been a challenge. It’s a little bit more of an investment and a long term goal with delayed gratification that requires a lot of reflection.
NN: What a process you both have had! Has anything surprised you so far?
Cassandra: I have been surprised by the reception that we have gotten, especially from the young kids. They love gardening and building. It just shows me as an educator how we have created a disservice in the way that we have educated children. They are not outside building, or using their hands. It is so inspiring to see these kid’s creativity and how they love what they are doing. And that goes from the little kids all the way up to the 22 year old kids. We have this view of education – that it is just being in a room and receiving, but I am seeing now this alternative is really invaluable.
One of the things that the UGC is doing is creating a community garden right in the middle of a suburban neighborhood in Saugerties, which doesn’t sound ‘radical’ but it really is. It is showing people what can be done. That you can grow food and it doesn’t have to be expensive. Other people that are not necessarily involved are seeing what is happening and they are getting curious and excited. The community is getting used to the kids being there now and they come by and ask “What are you doing?” and “How are you doing that?” So it’s a model – we are creating a model – on how neighborhoods can become sustainable and work together.
Chase: My expectations have definitely been challenged. Around here there aren’t a lot of employment opportunities for young people and because it is a rural area you really need a car. A lot of kids want to make money so that they can have a car and have some autonomy. So I was really thinking that what would draw kids here is a connection to future employment and that is what got a lot of them in the door. But what I came to find out is that the biggest draw is a sense of purpose and a sense of community, and I am seeing that is the most powerful recruiting tool and way to make this lifestyle viable.
My dream is that what we are doing can grow into a force to drive this local transition and that the kids will see this sustainability as a way of life. They can start businesses, build off grid natural houses, and start their own farmers markets that will compete with the real expensive farmers market that are around here. I’m hoping, and they are confirming this, that they are viewing these tools as something that they can fall back on to meet their needs and as something they can use to change their community and hopefully inspire critical change in society.
For More Information & Donations Visit: http://www.theundergroundcenter.org/