Resist speaks with Tomás Rivera of Chainbreaker Collective
Saif: Chainbreaker Collective has been a Resist grantee since 2011, but a lot has changed since then, hasn’t it? Let’s start off by giving a little bit of background information on Chainbreaker. – a “who-what-when-where” of the organization if you will.
Tomás: Sure. Chainbreaker is a membership based economic and environmental justice organization. This is our eleventh year. We are as grassroots as you get. We had a group of people who rode bicycles and needed them to get around and had no other mode of transportation and couldn’t afford to fix them up, so we basically sat around teaching each other how to do so. That evolved into a bicycle recycling project modeled after many that you see around the country.
We really like the idea of skill sharing and letting people understand how to do their own work instead of us doing it for them. We felt that really sat well with our politics, our beliefs, and our ability to do the work, because we had no resources at the time; we literally built our first space out of wood pallets and lumber that we found.
Then in 2008 the market collapsed and the economy hit people really hard, gas prices rose to $4 a gallon, and we looked around and people coming to us - we weren’t a membership-based organization quite yet - but a lot of people were coming to us and saying, “Hey, we like what you’re doing, but there’s a lot more that needs to happen here. What you do with bikes is great, it’s a great start, but it’s not the whole picture.”
I think our politics and our analysis had evolved a little bit, too; we started to begin to get an understanding of what it means to do organizing instead of just being an activist. And we wanted to incorporate that into the organization.
Saif: So what happened next?
Tomás: So the next big jump was towards becoming a membership-based organization. We started talking to the folks that were already there, and then we began jumping on buses, which was the next logical step for us as an organization; a lot of the people that we were working with were bus riders as well, and so it was a natural fit. Lo and behold, we were trying to figure out, “What does transportation justice mean? How do we address this from a civil rights lens, a social justice lens?”
We know that those things are real, but there are not as many examples of organizations doing that as we’d like to see, although there are and we’ve learned about more since, but at the time we really felt like we were shooting in the dark. Becoming a membership- based organization was about our own personal politics and our own neighborhoods. all neighborhoods. At the same time, we want to stop seeing cuts to our bus service as well. So that’s where we are right now, we’re in the midst of doing that, we’re proud of passing that ordi- nance and we will continue organizing in that way.
Saif: The Residents Bill of Rights. How did that idea first come up? It seems like a big shift in some ways, but not so big of a shift in other ways. It seems like that was a natural progression of the organization and the needs of the membership, and where some energy was naturally organically flowing. But can you describe a little bit of when the idea sparked?
Tomás: It’s hard to talk about transportation without talking about urban planning and housing. The rea- son that people need better bus service is because people are getting pushed further and further into the outskirts of the city. And that predominantly affects low-income people and people of color.
We’ve known that for a long time, we know also that bus ridership tends to be those folks. There are people that sort of ride the bus because they choose to, it’s good for the environment and they get out of their cars - lots of reasons to do that. But we find that the bulk of people do it out of necessity. So we’ve always known that that was part of the problem that we wanted to deal with. We just hadn’t had the capacity as an organization up until recently to be able to address some of the larger issues. All of these things are interrelated, and we have a large analysis, and we’ve always tried to figure out, well how can we use this larger goal of really trying to resist oppression, trying to help low- income people actually have a voice in how their city is built, how can we end ongoing segregation in Santa Fe? Those are very big things, and our ability to effect that change has been limited to bus ridership, bus policy, and helping folks with bicycles up until a couple of years ago. I think that we had enough - we’d done enough organizing that we had a strong enough base out there that it really allowed us to do things like to mend our bus system at the same time as going out and starting another campaign. So really it was about organizing, that’s what allowed us to do that.
Why the Residents Bill of Rights specifically? Again, when we were moving into this we were saying, “Wow, housing is such a big deal, we can focus just on Santa Fe’s increasing segregation. We can focus just on homeless issues. We could just focus on code enforcement issues.”
There are organizations that dedicate years and years and years of hard work to just enforcing civil rights violations out there. So we know that all of that is a piece of it, but we don’t know what that means - how to go about it. So we reached out to friends and allies around the country, we reached out to and became a member of the Right to the City alliance. So as we got more and more into the conversation we realized, “Well, hey, this is something we can actually do in Santa Fe!” It not only is helpful here in Santa Fe, it can be a model that is replicable in cities around the country. I think that that is work- ing, it’s starting to show. I think Right to the City gave us a lot of support; we used a template that was crafted not just by Chainbreaker members but also other organizations around the country working on those issues. It was very collaborative - there was a lot of solidarity out there. I think we took that template, that national model, and made it our own here locally, in Santa Fe, and that helped us kind of get out there, give us a reason to knock on doors, help us understand the issues locally as well, and kind of give us a footing into a new, or what seems like a new, issue.
Saif: That’s so cool. Yeah, that’s really inspirational.
Tomás: Well we couldn’t have done it without Resist.
Saif: No, no - that’s nowhere near true.
Tomás: No, that’s not sucking up or anything, that’s absolutely true.
Saif: Well, thanks, we’ll see if I can work that into the interview somewhere.
Tomás: I think when we got our first Resist grant, it was probably like 80% of our income or something like that, so it is significant. I can tell you that that money, now that our budget’s increasing - it’s still a lot. And I think out of all of our funders, you know, I think Resist really understands and feels part of the movement, you know in a way that we really appreciate.
Saif: Aw, thanks. But really, it is you who we should be thanking for all that you do. Ok, back to the questions! What are some of your current - what are some of the big- gest obstacles or challenges to your work, or what do you foresee being some of the biggest obstacles or challenges to your work.
Tomás: Well, I think essentially what we’re trying to fight is some really deep-rooted, ingrained, institutional racism and sexism and classism. Undo- ing colonialism doesn’t happen easily or without a lot of hard work. We always say it isn’t rocket science, but it’s a lot of hard work. And the folks that we’re trying to organize are affected by that every day, so we have members that will come to meetings after working two jobs, and it takes them literally two hours to come to our office, and they bring their kids. That’s a very humbling experience, to know that that work is so important that people would do that. But a lot of people don’t have the ability to do that, and it’s a challenge. And I think that is one of the reasons people don’t rise up in the way that we should be against all of the injustices that we see, is because the system really punishes people for doing it in everyday ways. And I’m not even talking about throwing people in prison, I’m talking about making it so that people don’t have time spend with their families, or making it so they have to work. So that is a big challenge. But I do think that it is something that’s overcome-able, and I do think that is why organizing, to me, is important; because it changes those dynamics, and it allows people to have real say, and real agency in how the decisions that affect their lives are made.
Saif: Thank you, that was beautifully put. So, the last wrap up question is, if you can briefly give us a hint of what is coming up in the future for Chainbreaker.
Tomás: Definitely. So we just had a membership meeting last night and we have huge news, but this is something
we’re launching publicly in December, at our annual, end-of-year party. So I can give you a little sneak peak. It’s called “Operation Elephant.” Check back with us at the end of the year to find out more!
Saif: Can’t even imagine what is in store for Santa Fe, but I bet it’s going to be amazing. And when you all do your first action, please send us a photo!
Tomás Rivera is the executive director of the Chainbreaker Collective, a Resist Grantee. Saif Rahman is the director of communications at Resist and is the editor of the Newsletter. Thank you to Andrea Martinez who is an undergraduate student interning at Resist. Her hobbies include learning, running, and black coffee. When her nose is not deep in a book, it can be found behind the lens of her Petri film camera.