Sunday, January 22, 2012

OWS's Energy Bike Project: Powered by the People!

                               Photo by David Shankbone, c/o Time's Up!

Early in the Occupy movement, the various segments of the Zuccotti Park encampment in New York decided they no longer wanted to rely on unsustainable gas generators for energy. The Sustainability workgroup in particular was looking for viable alternatives to gas. When they learned the gas generators were about to be seized by police, they knew the time had come to fully implement a better system: bicycle-powered energy.

Keegan Stephan, from Time’s UP! (an NYC-based direct action environmental organization) and the OWS Sustainability workgroup, spearheaded the energy bike project. While I was in NYC, we spoke at Time’s Up! in Brooklyn, where the group worked to create the energy system.

“The first bike was a really big hit, within the community. We brought it in late at night, and people sort of just flocked to it. We had a light going, because we hooked up a light and a radio to it, and it was like moths to a flame.” The bikes grabbed so much attention, he says, that “It was actually a little bit problematic for us working on the bikes at the park, though we were trying to do a lot of the wiring and stuff there, because the volunteers really wanted to be there, in that space…it was a magnetic space.”

The first bike got people in the movement interested in creating a more extensive energy system, and drew in passersby who had skills to share or wanted to learn more. “People knew what we were doing because we got coverage for that first bike, and then very professional electricians, a nuclear physicist, who ended up making our electrical schematic, they just stopped by at the park, and they would say, hey, I heard what you’re doing and I want to help.”

“People just poured out of the woodwork to help with it. It was difficult to manage that many volunteers,” he laughed.

Time's Up! and the Sustainability workgroup collaborated with other organizations like Brooklyn Machine Works, Occupy Boston, Pedal Power NYC, and MIT Pedal Power to get the bikes up and running, too.

Judging by the overwhelmingly positive response to the bikes, creating power together is incredibly empowering—all the more so in this case because people generated this power with their own bodies. Anyone could hop on a bike and start peddling. The power used by the people came from the collective efforts of the people—and the people’s collective skills in creating this energy system.

                                Photo by Brennan Cavanaugh, c/o Time's Up!

The police raid happened just four hours after Keegan and other volunteers had installed all of the bikes. Only a couple of the volunteers were able to get into the park after the alert about the raid, he said, and many of the bikes, stands, and batteries were damaged or lost. Keegan, who was at a meeting at Time’s Up! in Brooklyn, raced to the park on his bike and repeatedly tried to ride in with the traffic flow, since traffic was still being allowed through--only to be arrested when, at the officers' request, he began walking away. 

However, the experience of creating and using the bike generators taught members of the movement, and the greater public, a lesson that won’t be so easily lost—that sustainable energy systems are more viable than we might think. And the bonds formed by this experience certainly will remain strong. By combining our skills, we can lead each other into a radically healthier world, building vibrant community in the process. Keegan and Time’s Up! plan to continue promoting sustainable energy in the NYC community with the energy bikes. In fact, he says, spinning classes have approached them about generating power with their bikes, so perhaps the project will have more widespread effects than anyone even imagined.

To learn about creating your own energy bike project--for your home, your neighborhood, even your business--check out this nifty how-to from Time's Up!

To learn more about Time's Up!, visit:

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Occupy Vacant Lots, Philadelphia Works for Food Justice

I'm thrilled to see sustainable solutions emerging from the Occupy movement. The ideas may not all be novel, but applying them in any particular place requires creativity and dedication. In Occupy Philly, I met two young women working on an Occupy Vacant Lots project. Philly has 40,000 vacant lots, they said, so why shouldn't communities put the land to good use by turning them into gardens? Community gardens provide healthy, inexpensive food for people to share, helping communities become healthier and providing valuable educational and community-building opportunities.

I asked one of the project leaders, Bri, how communities responded when her group approached them, and she said people had been overwhelmingly positive. She didn't want to come across as elitist when approaching the communities, but she did want to share her growing knowledge about the importance of local food systems with people who could really benefit from community gardens. So far, she said, people have been very interested in starting gardens, eager to have access to nutritious, home-grown food.

In other words, while being perceived as elitist can be a concern for college-educated people working in lower-income neighborhoods, it's a concern to address through open dialogue that seeks feedback from communities. Assuming these communities wouldn't be interested in food soveriegnty would be the truly elitist stance. Everyone deserves access to healthy food, and that's a concept that may resonate somewhere deep within all of us, even if we're not used to eating the best quality food. 

It was just last week that I visited Occupy Philly and recorded Bri's story--she had a beautiful story about being presented with a Lenape squash, and feeling deeply moved by how this native species has survived for generations after so many have been lost. Being January, it wasn't exactly gardening season, but I have a feeling there will be a lot blossoming in the spring!