The Response: Just Transition and Permanently Organized Communities with Michelle Mascarenhas-Swan

Can we navigate a Just Transition through COVID-19 and the climate crisis? What would it take to make this happen and how can we get started in our communities right now?

We dug into these questions and more with Michelle Mascarenhas from Movement Generation Justice and Ecology Project.

Michelle was a founding co-chair of the Climate Justice Alliance and recently published an article outlining the 10 reasons why the time for Permanently Organized Communities is now.

The following is an excerpt from the first episode of the third season of Shareable’s The Response podcast.

Listen to the full interview here (or wherever you get your podcasts):

Tom Llewellyn: Can you give a brief history of how Movement Generation came to be and explain some of the work that you do?

Michelle Mascarenhas: Movement generation started about 13 years ago. We are a collective of organizers who came out of union organizing, environmental justice, economic justice, workers rights, racial justice, a range of different organizing fronts. It was at a moment in which many of our sectors of the movement were not necessarily engaging with an understanding of how climate change was going to impact our understanding of what it was going to take to transform the situations that our communities find themselves in.

Hurricane Katrina had just hit in New Orleans. Our social movements that were so rooted in racial justice were caught flat footed, and really didn’t have a very integrated way to respond to that moment and really an integrated understanding of even what was happening. So we began to hold conversations and retreats to support organizers to learn about food and water and energy and biological and cultural diversity to be able see those from a justice lens. Knowing that social inequity is in itself a form of ecological erosion.

After 500 years plus of pillage and plunder of many, many, places on the earth and of many peoples, we see that the life support systems of the very planet we depend on are increasingly unstable in terms of the way that we humans have needed them to be to sustain life. We understand that the planet is going to be okay, momma earth is gonna continue, there will be a new balance that will be found, our places will find a new balance, the climate will find a new balance.

The question is, how is that transition going to go? Is it going to be one that continues on a path of inequity, violence, scarcity and the hoarding of resources by some while others go without? Or is it going to be a Just Transition?

I have a really strong belief that people can come together based on our human values. I see it in people all the time, how much care, concern, heart, and vulnerability is possible. It moves me constantly. Our ancestor, Grace Lee Boggs, would say all the time to many of us, “what time is it on the clock of the world?” And “how are you moving from that place, or that understanding that you are here for a reason, at this time on the clock of the world? You can move people, other people can move you, and we can move together.”

Movement Generation is working with a pretty amazing array of organizations, both nationally and internationally through the Climate Justice Alliance. Can tell us a little bit about who’s in the Alliance and what you have accomplished so far?

It’s an amazing body of people who have been organizing in their communities for decades. It includes the Indigenous Environmental Network as a founder and Grassroots Global Justice Alliance as a founding member, right to the Right to the City Alliance as a founding member. Those are networks of grassroots groups that are deeply rooted in place. They bring a perspective of the root causes of these crises that we find ourselves in. Understanding that when we talk about climate change, we’re not just talking about greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. That is a problem, but it’s only a symptom of the root causes of the problem, which we see right here on the ground, right here in communities like New Orleans, like North Dakota, like Detroit, like Richmond, California, like Kentucky. These are some of the sites that our communities are leading with a vision for a different path that this can take.

That’s really what the groups in the Climate Justice Alliance are advancing — a connected, trans-local set of regenerative economies — which is what we need not only to solve the climate crisis, but really to solve all of these crises that we see in our times. Such as the crises of inequality, which in this moment of this global pandemic, we see that everything from the prison industrial system to a virus like COVID-19 will travel the same path of inequity. And so that has to be addressed. Those are the kinds of things that these frontline communities and the Climate Justice Alliance are designing for, from the ground [up].

I also want to encourage people to check out a zine that Movement Generation created along with the Climate Justice Alliance.

A lot of people have experienced mutual aid and deep democracy for the first time during this pandemic. You recently published an article outlining 10 reasons why we need permanently organized communities now, which I found to be a compelling pathway to transition current community organizing initiatives into lasting systemic change. Can you lay out some of your reasons for our readers?

My comrade over here at Movement Generation, Gopal Dayaneni, likes to say “the scale of the problem does not dictate the scale of the solution.” The scale of the problem is the problem. We’re in a global pandemic because we have global superhighways for the virus to travel. And because we’ve eroded so much of people’s capacity in localities to protect life (which we’re seeing in healthcare systems).

This article about why we need to be organized at the community level really comes from that. I want to pay deep respect and homage to the indigenous and native communities all over the world, who are the original, permanently organized communities, and still are permanently organized communities.

Right now roughly 30 percent of renters in the United States didn’t pay their rent in April, and I believe it’s going to be much higher in May, as 26 million people have now filed for unemployment in the U.S. There’s a massive call for canceled rent (#CancelRent). Congress member Ilhan Omar has just introduced this fabulous legislation that is calling for it [on the national level].

We need new rules that codify the rights that are being exercised during this time, the right to a roof, the right to shelter, the right to healthcare, even the right to food. The ideas that were put in our heads that those things are only allocated to those who deserve them is being shattered right now. And it’s our job as organizers, and as people, to organize ourselves with new ways of moving and thinking that codifies sharing and caring, over profit and hoarding.

That’s a good transition into your “share, don’t hoard” principle. Can talk about some of the different ways that people are sharing with each other in this moment?

One really powerful example is #ShareMyCheck. The federal government is distributing $1,200 (plus $500 per child) to every adult who has documents. But there are many, many people who are holding this economy up who are undocumented, and who aren’t going to get a check (and really need it). At the same time, there’s a lot of us, myself included, who are still getting a paycheck. So I’m going to share my check, and my partner is gonna share his check.

This is a trans-local action that people can take to share locally and through funds like UndocuFund which supports undocumented people in the U.S., the new economy coalition fund which supports grassroots frontline organizations, and a waste pickers fund created to support waste pickers in India and many other places.

Listen to our The Response podcast episode about UndocuFund here.

I really like the framing that you have around shocks, slides, and shifts. What opportunities are you seeing in this moment?

Let’s go back to what I was talking about in regards to housing. The housing crisis is an example of a slide that has been happening for decades, and this shock is enabling us to win some shifts. If we can gain the political will to move public funding and private capital at scale, we can make sure that tenants can purchase their buildings and put them in land trusts or other vehicles to keep them in community control in perpetuity.

If we can do that, then we’ve won major shifts towards that permanent vision that we have for regenerative economies. We can also do that in food, waste, and energy. This is a moment where there are lots of opportunities for shifts in the systems we need to survive.

These shifts are going to be trans-local in nature. In other words, here in Oakland and Berkeley, our city councils have passed tenant option to purchase acts, where tenants of buildings have the first right of refusal to purchase their building when it goes on sale. But we can’t just do that in Berkeley and Oakland, we need to do that everywhere. So we need these rule changes, they might look slightly different in different places. There are no more sacrifice zones.

Those are the kinds of shifts that we really have an opportunity to make in this moment.

Is there anything else you’d like to share?

One of the biggest openings of this moment is that people are reassessing how they move, live, and spend their time. Are they living their life in accordance with their values and priorities?

If you organize around the position that you’re in, the role that you play — roles not jobs — critical roles like nurses, teachers, aid workers, food service providers, farmers, parents, children, we can bring a perspective, leadership and voice to the table in ways that will lead to permanently organized communities. That’s what we need to get us through this transition, which is going to be a long and rocky one.

But if we hold together and lean into connection, interconnectedness, care, cooperation, mutuality, and the sacredness of life, of every being, every incredible, totally different, unique being that life creates for a purpose, then I believe we will change the game. We’ll be able to say, we did what we needed to do when our back was up against the wall and we made sure that we didn’t make ourselves small. We really used the superpowers that each one of us has to come together as our squads, teams, crews, collectives, and families to work together and change the game.

Movement Generation is offering an online course beginning May 19th: MG’s Course Correction: Just Transition in the Age of COVID-19 // Cambio del rumbo: una transición justa en la era del COVID-19


This article is part of our reporting on The People’s COVID-19 Response. Here are a few articles from the series:


The Response: Building Collective Resilience in the Wake of Disasters

Download our free ebook- The Response: Building Collective Resilience in the Wake of Disasters (2019)

Tom Llewellyn


Tom Llewellyn | |

Tom Llewellyn is the interim executive director for Shareable, a nonprofit news + action hub promoting people-powered solutions for the common good. As part of his role at Shareable,

Things I share: Food, Stories, Time, Skills, Tools, Cars, Bikes, Smiles, Clothes, Music, Knowledge, Home, Land, Water, and Stone Soup!