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Tanya Fields: Breaking locks and planting seeds in the South Bronx

The website for Tanya Fields' The BLK Projek describes her vision as seeking "to address food justice, public & mental health issues as they specifically relate to under-served women of color through culturally relevant education, beautification of public spaces, urban gardening and community programming."

All true. But the high-minded rhetoric doesn't quite capture the drama of the moment when Fields decided to engage in some direct-action urban guerrilla farming by cutting the lock on a gate to a vacant lot near her home in the South Bronx.

"It was Memorial Day, 2010," she recalls. "We were giving out vegan hot dogs, and planting sunflowers, and cleaning up weeds."

And then suddenly the owner of the lot, who hadn't answered Fields' calls for a year, showed up. And then the police got involved. And then Fields had to scramble to find the cash to pay for a new lock and repairs to the gate.

It's not easy being a food justice activist in the South Bronx, says Fields, who was born and raised across the river in Harlem. It's especially tricky when you are the mother of four and depending on food stamps to keep everyone fed.

Read more: Urban Agriculture

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Betsy MacLean: Community development as public health

Grist is proud to present the Change Gang — profiles of people who are leading change on the ground toward a more sustainable society and a greener planet. Some we’ve written about before; some are new to our pages. Some you’ll have heard of; most you probably won’t. Know someone we should add to the Change Gang? Tell us why.

As a member of a crew of carpenters working for wealthy residents on the upper East Side of Manhattan in the late 1990s, Betsy MacLean got lessons in class consciousness and racial awareness from two directions at once. She had the least skills or experience of anyone in her crew, but as the only white person on a mostly black and Latino team she discovered that clients would frequently address her as if she were the boss. And then there was her real boss: a former labor organizer who had spent the 1980s making trips to Nicaragua in solidarity with the Sandinistas.

"He gave me my first book on Che," says MacLean with a sharp laugh, as she explains how a one-time philosophy major from Ohio ended up devoting her life to improving the welfare of the mostly low-income, minority residents of the Brooklyn neighborhood known as East New York. "His whole thing was we do all of this work in the city for rich people, and it's gonna pay for us to go down to Cuba and work on the reconstruction of Old Havana. That was the dream."

MacLean followed that dream, and soon found herself working in the "super-marginalized" outskirts of Havana with "micro-brigades" of all-women construction crews. Soon she was organizing her own groups of Americans for regular trips to Cuba to help build urban agriculture projects. After completing a dual masters in international affairs and urban planning at Columbia, she decided to employ some of the lessons she had learned down south in East New York.

Today, as the community development director for the Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation, MacLean has helped organize the construction of new schools, green affordable housing, and, soon, a collectively operated chicken farm. And she is uniquely positioned to explore a sometimes touchy subject -- the intersection of environmental awareness and class.

Read more: Cities

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Kate Zidar: A sewershed grows in Brooklyn

Grist is proud to present the Change Gang — profiles of people who are leading change on the ground toward a more sustainable society and a greener planet. Some we’ve written about before; some are new to our pages. Some you’ll have heard of; most you probably won’t. Know someone we should add to the Change Gang? Tell us why.

In 2012, this is how Brooklyn rolls: On an early spring evening in March, 60-70 people gathered at the Brooklyn Brewery to hear a talk about what to do about sewage overflow into the notoriously polluted Newtown Creek. Urban planner Kate Zidar, the executive director of the Newtown Creek Alliance, recalled the meeting as the "nerdiest event you can imagine."

"The first speaker went through reams of water quality data," says Zidar, "and then there was me talking about a really obscure planning process. And it was packed."

These days, it seems like you can hardly go one subway stop on the F train without slamming into yet another Brooklyn activist determined to turn one of the most metropolitan regions in the world into a clean, green, ecologically sustainable wonderland. Kate Zidar is a perfect example.

A one-time biologist, Zidar had an epiphany in Ecuador a decade ago while studying carabid beetles, a carnivorous rain forest insect.

"The typical conservation biology story is that you seek out these wild spaces and study them with this idea of needing to save them -- save the rainforest or save the whales or whatever," says Zidar. "But I found myself more observant of the fact that in these wild spaces there were humans who were struggling with their basic needs like food, shelter and employment, and how that impacted the ecosystem. And that's how I got interested in urban planning."

Zidar moved to New York, got a master's degree in urban planning from the Pratt Institute, and speedily coined a new term in the title of her master's thesis: "The Citizen's Guide to the Sewershed."

Read more: Cities, Infrastructure

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Skate punk gets business degree to sharpen his activist chops

Grist is proud to present the Change Gang -- profiles of people who are leading change on the ground toward a more sustainable society and a greener planet. Some we've written about before; some are new to our pages. Some you'll have heard of; most you probably won't. Know someone we should add to the Change Gang? Tell us why.

Life as a skate punk growing up in the northern Wisconsin town of Minocqua wasn't always easy, recalls Erick Boustead.

"We would always be getting kicked out of places while we were skateboarding," he says. "We didn't act out too much in school, but there was always a stigma associated with our music and skateboarding."

"So we decided to organize."

Boustead and his friends began a series of local music festivals and ended up raising $1,000 -- enough to get a skate park built. The experience, says Boustead, "laid a foundation for seeing what is possible if you put a lot of energy into something, and try to put a positive spin on something that is unrightfully stigmatized."

Boustead has been building on this foundation ever since as an environmental activist, events organizer, and co-founder of a media production company dedicated to helping nonprofit advocacy groups communicate their messages.

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Max Cadji: Worms against the philanthro-pimps!

Grist is proud to present the Change Gang -- profiles of people who are leading change on the ground toward a more sustainable society and a greener planet. Some we've written about before; some are new to our pages. Some you'll have heard of; most you probably won't. Know someone we should add to the Change Gang? Tell us why.

There is dirt underneath Max Cadji's fingernails seven days a week, and that's exactly how he likes it. Whether he's spending the day sifting worm compost in his job managing an urban farm for Oakland, Calif.'s People's Grocery, or helping to set up a community garden through Phat Beets Produce, a "food justice collective" he co-founded, Cadji is outdoors, every day, pouring his "sweat equity" into projects he believes in.

He'd be doing the same work, he says, whether or not his job at People's Grocery was paying his bills. "This is a movement," says Cadji, "and when you're doing movement-building, there is no disconnection between your free time and your work time. If I stopped getting paid, right now, I have money saved, and I'd continue doing the work until another means came along. It's just basically what I think about all day and what I talk about all day -- there is no need for me to make time for it because there is no differentiation between work and pleasure."

The way Cadji sees it, there's also not much difference between the southern tip of Madagascar and the flatlands of West Oakland. In both cases, the indigenous locals are at the untender mercies of a global food system that doesn't have their best interests at heart.

Read more: Food

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Plant a tree, pay a salary, save the climate — all at once

Grist is proud to present the Change Gang -- profiles of people who are leading change on the ground toward a more sustainable society and a greener planet. Some we've written about before; some are new to our pages. Some you'll have heard of; most you probably won't. Know someone we should add to the Change Gang? Tell us why.

Most visionary startup entrepreneurs who aim to leverage the power of the internet to achieve progressive social change content themselves with trying to solve just one big problem. But Tim Whitley, the founder of COTAP.org -- Carbon Offsets To Alleviate Poverty -- is going double or nothing. His goal is to tackle climate change and the worst poverty in the world, simultaneously.

The scheme is simple in concept, if a bit gnarly to work out, technically. Individuals use the COTAP platform to buy carbon offsets. COTAP uses that money to pay some of the poorest people in the world to plant trees as part of carefully monitored agro-forestry projects. The trees, eventually, account for the carbon dioxide emission reductions. The model is similar to that employed by the microfinance lender Kiva.org, except that instead of aggregating funds to make loans directly to the specific people a lender chooses, COTAP aggregates funds to pay wages to people whose labor helps combat the challenge of climate change.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Energy bar-ista moves from reality TV to real food

Grist is proud to present the Change Gang -- profiles of people who are leading change on the ground toward a more sustainable society and a greener planet. Some we've written about before; some are new to our pages. Some you'll have heard of; most you probably won't. Know someone we should add to the Change Gang? Tell us why.

It doesn't take Corey Rennell more than a few staccato sentences to explain why, as a kid growing up in Alaska, he first started taking his food seriously.

"My mom was a huge hippie and only fed me natural food. My dad was a hunter. I watched Bambi when I was 7, and then shortly after, my dad killed a deer and served venison as my first taste of red meat. I was confused as to what it was. He said it was deer -- baby deer. I had a meltdown and became a vegetarian."

Read more: Food

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Soul food survivor: The transformation of Trazana Staples

Grist is proud to present the Change Gang -- profiles of people who are leading change on the ground toward a more sustainable society and a greener planet. Some we've written about before; some are new to our pages. Some you'll have heard of; most you probably won't. Know someone we should add to the Change Gang? Tell us why.

In her backyard in Nashville, Tenn., Trazana Staples is growing turnip greens, mustard, kale, and two kinds of garlic (white and Siberian). "That's the winter garden," she says, with a tone of pleased satisfaction.

Her vegetable patch isn't just a good source of produce. For Staples, it's a daily reminder that profound personal change is possible.

Read more: Food

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How a 21-year-old ended up in India with a bag full of solar flashlights

Grist is proud to present the Change Gang -- profiles of people who are leading change on the ground toward a more sustainable society and a greener planet. Some we've written about before; some are new to our pages. Some you'll have heard of; most you probably won't. Know someone we should add to the Change Gang? Tell us why. For Ximena Prugue, being "young and naïve" is a strength, not a weakness. "It makes you that much more powerful," says the 21-year-old. "You don't have all those years of experience deterring you from thinking that you can do something." …

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Heart to hearth: Darfur Stoves Project’s Andree Sosler makes survival sustainable

Grist is proud to present the Change Gang -- profiles of people who are leading change on the ground toward a more sustainable society and a greener planet. Some we've written about before; some are new to our pages. Some you'll have heard of; most you probably won't. Know someone we should add to the Change Gang? Tell us why. Call it the bright side of globalization: progressive solutions midwifed by transnational interconnections. From her office in Berkeley, Calif., Andree Sosler, executive director of the Darfur Stoves Project, coordinates the distribution of cheap, clean, super fuel-efficient cooking stoves to women …