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Moving On Up

Social Justice Center gives environmental group a chance to shine

It’s a bittersweet success for the Social Justice Center. The 22-year-old nonprofit incubator for grassroots activists at 22 Central Ave. in Albany offers resources, including office space below market value, in the hope that its member groups will get big enough that one day they will be able to move out on their own. And on Aug. 11, SJC will be celebrating the fact that Citizens’ Environmental Coalition has done just that.

“This is the fourth time an agency has outgrown the space,” said Victorio Reyes, director of SJC. Environmental Advocates, In Our Own Voices and the Homeless Action Committee are all groups that succeeded in SJC’s mission prior to CEC.

“And there may be even more that I don’t know about from years ago,” Reyes said. “Those are four big agencies locally that all got their start here, and they all started with just one desk.”

Losing CEC’s rent for the third floor will be tough for the center—it is a big part of their operating budget. Plus, Reyes added, it’s tough just because they’re friends.

“It sounds so cliché,” said Matthew Shapiro, development associate with CEC, “but it really is like a family here.”

And that’s the center’s strength, Shapiro said. If a member has a question, he or she can rely on the wide variety of other groups in the building for help. “Everyone is comfortable enough to go into each other’s offices, to talk to each other, to ask each other questions. Just to be there for each other.”

It is an exciting time for CEC. Besides moving into its new location at 119 Washington Ave., the 23-year-old group has, in the past two years, expanded its staff from three full-time employees to eight and embraced a new direction.

“We really became the toxic-cleanup people,” Shapiro said. “That was our aim.” In 2003, after 20 years of pushing, the governor signed the Superfund Refinancing Bill, not only re-funding the Superfund bill, but expanding it as well.

“It was very exciting for us,” he said. But it had been the major purpose of their work for so long, they had to figure out how they were going to switch to a focus on prevention. “To make sure there is no more need for Superfunds. From clean up to prevention.”

“It has been a real interesting process,” he added.

Part of the process has meant reaching beyond the base of CEC’s support—environmental and social groups—to all sorts of medical officials, nurses associations, learning- disabilities associations, etc.

“We are dedicated to a total overhaul of New York’s environmental policy,” Shapiro said. “So that we aren’t relying on toxic chemicals anymore.”

The next major project for CEC is coming in November. The group is putting together a two-day symposium called “Healthy Environment, Healthy Economy.” Shapiro said that it will be the biggest event New York state has ever had to push forward green purchasing and green procurement, and to show that the infrastructure is there and the state is ready.

“The Safe and Sustainable Procurement Act would create a huge market shift statewide toward safe and sustainable products,” Shapiro said. “We are talking about a $9 billion market-shift.”

Of course, he pointed out, when you talk about a $9 billion switch (the purchasing budget for New York state for those kinds of goods and services), there is bound to be a fight. A lot of people who have been in the system for so long will be cut out.

But that kind of fight is the reason CEC exists. And its successes, coupled with a growing public concern with environmental issues, Shapiro said, gives the group much-needed hope.

“I think people are becoming more aware, that it is not the toxic-waste dump in other people’s backyard, it is the toxic elements in your own home,” he said. “We want to educate people on what type of products that they are bringing into their home, and how many everyday products are toxic—your shower curtain, your rug, your vinyl lunchbox. Once people see and get educated on what they are bringing into their homes, what they are using to clean their sink . . . we will get a lot more support.”

—Chet Hardin

What a Week


The editorial page of The Wall Street Journal is known for its out-there columns, but this week it hit a new level: Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis warned in his editorial that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may have sinister plans set for Aug. 22—the date he is to respond to the United States about nuclear development. “What is the significance of Aug. 22?” writes Lewis. “This year, Aug. 22 corresponds, in the Islamic calendar, to the 27th day of the month of Rajab of the year 1427. This, by tradition, is the night when many Muslims commemorate the night flight of the prophet Muhammad . . . first to the farthest mosque, usually identified with Jerusalem, and then to heaven and. . . . This might well be deemed an appropriate date for the apocalyptic ending of Israel and, if necessary, of the world.” Most U.S. intelligence signals that Iran may be able to have a working nuclear bomb by 2010 to 2015, not in two weeks.

What’s So Wrong About Torture, Anyway?

Washington Post reported this week that the Bush administration plans to make changes to the 1996 War Crimes Act, in response to the June 29 Supreme Court ruling that found the treatment and trial of prisoners in Guantanamo to be illegal. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales told the Senate last week that the Geneva Convention was too vague and needed to be clarified by Congress. The proposed amendments would specify 10 crimes that would be prosecutable under the War Crimes Act, but it would not cover “outrages upon personal dignity” as cited in the Geneva Convention.

Homeless and Bookless

According to the Associated Press, three homeless men and two social-service agencies have filed suit against the library and city of Worcester, Mass. One homeless man, who is an avid reader, says that he has been told that he cannot check out books from the library because he does not have a permanent address. Library officials say that they require a permanent address because of the number of books lost to people they cannot track down.

Loose Ends

-no loose ends this week-

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