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Is change possible in Sonoma?

What makes change possible? The late activist Grace Lee Boggs wrote, “We can begin by doing small things at the local level like planting community gardens or looking out for our neighbors. That is how change takes place in living systems, not from above but from within, from many local actions occurring simultaneously.”

She could have added, “Don’t give up.”

Persevering through all the ups and downs, sometimes for decades, is what turns small things at the local level into movements.

Marty Bennett decades-long fight for raising the minimum wage is a fine example.

The retired SRJC instructor in American history helped found North Bay Jobs for Justice AND the North Bay Organizing Project, both highly active to this day. Now he serves as Research Policy Associate for Unite Here, a labor union of hotel, gaming, and food service workers in the East and North Bay.

Today, September 22, he is awaiting the Board of Supervisors’ decision, several years delayed by fires and pandemic. “We’re looking for language to make the ordinance more comprehensive and effective. Its current version only covers County workers. We want to expand it to the Fair and the airport.”

But its reach has extended beyond the county. California was the first state to mandate the raise, and now we have ten states that have done so, he told me in a phone conversation. “Florida was the most recent – in a solid red state!

“In general, Americans have become supportive of raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15.”

That didn’t happen overnight. What has kept him going?

“Because it’s the right thing to do.”

“Inequality and climate change and the pandemic are the most important issues of our time, and, like the civil rights movement, we can’t have structural change without the grassroots. It’s got to come from the bottom up.”

Incremental changes in public attitude occur long before government action. Despite today’s sophisticated data analyses, it’s difficult to see the shifts in consciousness that are taking place all the time. Often change doesn’t seem to make it to the top. Powerful actors who benefit from the status quo don’t want to change. Power does not want to give up its power, as Richard Heinberg reminded us in his recent talk at Praxisxpeace, a local organization that brings innovative progressive speakers to its meetings to tackle stubborn issues like climate change, military budgets, public banking.

Slow progress can be depressing. Activists burn out, or fight with each other. Yet concerted collective action is all we’ve got. “We are many, and they are few,” said Arundhati Roy years ago at a meeting of the World Social Forum, an annual meeting of civil society that began in 2001. Its motto: Another world is possible.

Now we have reached a critical moment in our human story. The consequences of our past behavior are all rolling in before our eyes: racism, the persecution of indigenous groups, private greed, public violence, and the ongoing destruction of the environment that has propelled us, all humanity and the planet itself, to the ravages of climate change. The societal changes demanded of us now are huge, seemingly impossible. Yet we could do it – if we can do the hardest thing – come together.

Instead we are seeing the deepest polarization of our society on issues large and small, from abortion to vaxxing, fair elections to housing, and, well, you know the riff.

This week the United Nations is holding a Food Summit that has become a fight. Farmers around the world are protesting their exclusion from this decision-making body where policy has been put firmly in the unseen hands of giant corporations who continue to perpetuate industrial agriculture, with its fossil fuel dependency and toxic chemicals, over local regenerative farming. It’s a fight that will surely have repercussions on the organic farming heartland of Sonoma County.

Then there’s the COP26 on climate coming up in November.

Marty Bennett will continue working to raise the wage floor for essential workers. “Farm workers are at the top of that list,” he says.

It’s all the same fight in the end, the fight for human decency, planet and people over profit. And this time, we’ve got to win.

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