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Interview with Kevin Danaher of the Global Citizen Center


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Kevin Danaher is the co-founder of the nonprofit Global Exchange which co-sponsors the Green Festivals with Co-op America. Kevin talks about the Global Citizen Center, a large mixed use building in downtown San Francisco that will serve as a hub for ecologically and socially responsible enterprise, education and economic development. Below is a transcript of my interview with him for the Big Vision Podcast.

Kevin Danaher: My name is Kevin Danaher. I am a co-founder of Global Exchange, which was founded by myself and two other people, Medea Benjamin, my wife, and Kirsten Moller who has been the Executive Director of Global Exchange since we started in 1988. Our main goal is to educate the American people about what is really going on in the world, not what the U.S. government tells them, or what the corporate media tells them. We do that in a number of ways. We have reality tours where we take people out to other parts of the world, kind of reverse Club Med, "get your butt off the beach and meet real people," see the development projects, the literacy campaigns, the women's groups, the political opposition parties, the trade unions, but focused on positive, build the next system kind of things.

We have stores where we sell Third World crafts. These are Third World development groups that don't want charity. They want a market for their products. They are creating their own bootstraps, but they need access to First World markets and we provide that for them through our stores, three bricks and mortar stores and one online store which you can get to at globalexchange.org.

We do a lot of corporate campaigning, pressuring Nike to treat their workers better in their sweatshops, forcing Starbucks to start selling Fair Trade certified coffee, and things of that sort. We started five years ago, a little over five years ago, doing the Green Festival. The Green Festival is a big green economy event that we co-produce with Co-op America. The basic idea is to bring together a combination of a green economy trade show with about four hundred green economy companies, and a conference on the green economy with about a hundred speakers, and then we have live music all day long, everything from hip hop to bluegrass. We have about 10 or 12 organic vegetarian restaurants, stuff for the kids, puppet shows, workshops for if you want to put solar on your roof, or you want to do composting or whatever, there's all this how-to stuff, and we started in San Francisco five years ago. We've now expanded to Washington, D.C., and most recently to Chicago in April, and we are looking to expand to other cities.

Where the Green Festival came from, actually, was it was kind of a secondary institution in that about seven or eight years ago Global Exchange was having one of those strategic direction discussions, and the discussion was around growth. How do we grow the organization? There are two models of growth. One is you expand your membership, revenues, staff, programs, etc. The other is you create a larger institution of real estate, a commercial real estate property, where your organization is one of the tenants in the building, and then you bring in a whole bunch of your allied organizations to fill up the building, and you become like the revolution center, the green-global-economy-people's-bottom-up-development center, or whatever you want to call it. So we came up with the idea of Global Citizen Center, but I wanted the ground floor retail portion of that building to be Green-Mart, the opposite of Wal-Mart, the entire green economy eco-mall, which nobody's done yet, surprisingly enough, and I realized that I didn't know the green economy movement because my ten books had been all about the World Bank, the IMF, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization, all this big, global economy kind of stuff.

So we figured that if we did a weekend event, The Green Festival, that would get us to know this green economy movement, build some credibility. If you can't do it for a weekend, you probably can't do it on a permanent basis. So now after five years of doing The Green Festival, and having 36,000 people show up in San Francisco to our most recent show in November 2006, we are pretty confident that at least in Northern California, in the Bay Area, there is enough green consciousness to support a building that would have an organic vegetarian restaurant and cafe with Fair Trade coffee, a Greenmart green economy space, perhaps an eco spa, a gym where the stationary bicycles and rowing machines generate electricity, events, films, speakers, a pharmacy. We've recruited Pharmica, which is a natural pharmacy. They want to have a space in the building. I've got a spa guy who wants to do a 3000 square foot spa, and then the offices of Global Exchange, Rainforest Action Network, Transfair USA (the Fair Trade certifying agency), the city Department of the Environment, Mother Jones, a whole bunch of organizations that we work with anyway, but they are all scattered around town renting from commercial landlords, and that money that we pay in rent, like Global Exchange is paying over $100,000 a year in rent, and it is going to some private wealthy family, no offense to them, but I'd rather see that money stay within the movement.

The idea is nonprofit ownership of the building, you can get out of paying property taxes that way, and then take that rent money that everyone has been paying, and turn it back into the movement, things like planting trees in the neighborhood around the building, sponsoring the Green Guardians, which would be a youth training in green skills where they would have nice shirts and hats and walk around the neighborhood in groups of four, five, six, ensuring peace, doing conflict resolution on the street, cleaning things up, helping people with composting and recycling, doing all sorts of neighborhood improvement.

It seems to me from a marketing standpoint, if neighbors know that the commercial enterprise in that building, the Global Citizen Center, is going to put its profits back into the neighborhood--here is a vacant lot, we make a park out of it; youth group needs some money, we give them the money; school needs some new books, we get them the books; things like that--People will shop in your store because they know you didn't come into town as Wal-Mart to suck out more wealth than you put in. You are about community development. You are about plowing your profits into the neighborhood because you're a nonprofit.

Now we have gotten to the point where I have some fairly heavyweight real estate investors types who like the idea. They want to do it, and they like the idea of us doing it in a lot of cities, and then linking them up. There is already a group, Baum Realty in Chicago, that's doing a building called the Green Exchange. It's a 250,000 square foot building that they are tenanting with green companies, and we are helping them in that process, helping them recruit companies to be there. They are going to come out here to San Francisco, and we are going to shop around for buildings because they have a whole bunch of money, and a lot of skills around real estate, and we have the connections with the green economy groups. So it is at a point of being taken seriously now where I don't have any more doubt that it's going to happen. It is just a question of exactly when, exactly where, how much it is going to cost, those details. Nobody, I mean nobody, I have pitched this idea to thousands, literally thousands of people and no one, not one person has said bad idea. Everybody says great idea, but you have to make sure you watch out for this, and everybody's got some advice, but nobody has said bad idea.

Britt: What are some of the challenges to making the Global Citizen Center happen?

Kevin: In the Green Festival my title is the Executive Co-Producer. People say, what's an executive producer? An executive producer does three things: vision (the original idea), money and personnel. You have the idea, you raise money around the idea, and then you hire the right people. If you get all three of those right, then it succeeds, and then you can walk away because you hired good people, it is up and running. You can go on and do something else. The vision piece of the Global Citizens Center is pretty well worked out. Our business plan is over 100 pages. The money part is part way there. We have raised enough to go this far, and develop a web site, and materials, and a video, and some staff and outreach, and we have got 100,000 square feet of office tenants lined up. We've got a restaurant partner and a spa partner, and all these different people that want to be part of it. Now it is just the question of the bigger money to actually acquire the building.

And actually, we have had some meetings lately with building owners where you wouldn't need a lot of money because these are people who are very wealthy, they own a building, and they want to see the building do something green, and they like our idea. So you can say, "Ok, we'll do a lease-to-buy where we will do a five-year lease on the whole building, and you will donate the first year's rent to us--you, the owner. You'll give us free rent the first year so that we have time to get up on our legs, get going, get some programs going, raise some money, and you might even want to retain a stake in the building. When we buy it from you, you might want to keep ten or 20 or 30 percent of the ownership, and you are going to profit from that because we are going to make this place rock."

And they get that. And some of them are so rich that if they lost the whole thing it wouldn't really put a dent in their wealth. So you not only want partners who are wealthy, but partners who get that the green economy is the next economy. That's guaranteed, and what's guaranteeing it is, it is one of the few positive things about the destruction of the environment. As the environment gets destroyed--and pretty much every biological system is collapsing right now--the value of economic models, business models, that save nature, that mitigate environmental pollution and the destruction of soil, and the pollution of water and things like that; the value of those technologies and business models keeps going up.

You see it with wind energy. Wind energy is now priced competitively with electricity from coal and natural gas. The price of wind energy is going down; the price of those others is going up. The oil is running out, so things that substitute for oil, bioplastics and all that, the value of those go up. And you are starting to see capital shift. You see it in the business press and you see it in the markets.

Britt: You've used entrepreneurial models in combination with nonprofits, with Global Exchange, and now the Global Citizen Center. Some people are saying that the nonprofit model is fading out, and that we need more social entrepreneurship. What do you think the best role is for nonprofits in the movement and the green economy?

Kevin: Well, you see a lot of silos out there. There are groups that are saving the whales, groups that are doing web site development. There are all these great organizations that tend to be small and fragmented, these silos. My model is, create platforms where the silos can come together. The Green Festival is a weekend space where the nonprofit social justice and environmental groups, the solar energy companies, the organic restaurants, both enterprise and nonprofits, and government, those three sectors can come together--or at least the pieces of those three sectors that are progressive and green can come together--and synergize, and realize each of us has strengths and weaknesses. It's like your fingers. Each finger is breakable; when they form a fist, when they come together and unify with a common purpose, it's really hard to break them. You can take a pencil and break it; you put ten pencils together, you can't break them.

So it is that basic idea. If you look in nature--because one of the things that's going on in the green economy movement is biomimicry, biomimmetics, looking at how nature does it; realizing nature's beta phase was millions of years, so there is no way us humans, with about 100,000 years of sentient, upright existence can ever out-think nature--you look at how nature does it. In nature, your greatest biodiversity tends to happen where two biomes meet, where the forest biome and the meadow biome come together. In that boundary area is where your most dense creativity is, your greatest biodiversity. Ok, so it tells us the same thing in human society. In traditional society, the matchmaker got paid by him and her--not to be heterosexist, but that was the model because one and one equals three in that model. So both parties paid the matchmaker because the matchmaker was creating value for both sides through the synapse. So it is the creation of social synapse; you could call it "community."

What I am trying to create is a real estate model that captures that value, because if you look at the way most of these downtown buildings are, it's really stupid the way it is organized. They build a building, and then they just fill it up, and there's an architecture firm, and a law firm, and whatever. And they don't care, the owner doesn't care, if they have a relationship or work together or not. They care about how much rent can you pay, and it's about maximizing one bottom line: financial.

Well, now there's a triple bottom line of social equity, environmental restoration and financial sustainability, and about getting those three to interact in a synergistic way where they all strengthen each other, not detract from each other where, "Oh you gotta take away from the financial to do the social and the environmental." No, no. It's like muscles interacting with each other. They are supposed to strengthen each other. We now have--I use a grid of the three columns (social, environmental, financial)--for each facet of the project, or the building, or whatever it is you are doing, show how each of those can synergize and strengthen each other rather than detract from each other.

Jed Emerson, one of the brilliant leaders of this movement, he uses the term, "blended value," and he talks about, how do you get those three sets of values to blend, so that you are healing society, you are healing nature, and you are making a profit--but you're not making a profit so that you can be Donald Trump and be a billionaire and waste money on a coke habit, or whatever, but so that you can plow that money back into the project, which is to save humanity from itself. I mean, that's the challenge that's in front of us right now, is not "save the planet." The planet will save itself by exterminating us. It will shuck us off like any other bad bug.

What is possible now, for us, is conscious evolution. That is the opportunity we have. For the first time in human history, we have the ability to create what some people have called, "global brain," where each of us is one cell in a global consciousness. That's why we call the project the Global Citizen Center, because we want to create a space, a building, in every city in the world, and link them all in this project. And if you think about it from just a straight business standpoint, and strip out the other stuff; if you have a building where all of the tenants in the offices are all promoting the physical address, and saying, "Hey, come to our store, or our restaurant, or our gym, or our spa on the ground floor, it's really rocking," you've got so much more outreach marketing potential.

At the Green Festival, if we have 400 exhibitors, and they are all putting out email, newsletters and web sites saying, "Hey, come visit us at the Green Festival on these dates, at this place. We're in Booth 227," I don't pay for that. Green Festival doesn't pay for that. They absorb that cost, because it is in their self-interest. So the project is, how do you create a physical space and a business model where you can unify all these different self-interests into one common self interest? And I think that's how you build a movement.

Britt: Are there other examples of centers or businesses with this triple bottom line?

Kevin: Yeah, well that's part of the good news, is this green economy movement, which is my catchphrase that I usually use to describe it, it's growing so fast that you can't keep track of it. I do this seven days a week. I work really long hours; I'm on the Internet all the time, I'm writing all the time, I'm talking to people on the phone all the time, and I can't keep track of it. And I've got staff working with me, working on it too, and we can't keep track of it all, it's growing so fast, and that's a good thing. The Green Festival in San Francisco, so many people come to it that the problem is, it's crowded, and that is people's main complaint, "When are you going to get a bigger building?" I want that problem. That is a great problem to have. It's like being too rich or too beautiful or too smart.

So where it is going right now, is the movement is growing really rapidly, you can see this in a lot of different ways. There is a national network called Nonprofitcenters.org, that is a national network that, actually, I am happy to say was started by China Brodsky, who is on my Board of Directors, she's great, which is a network of these nonprofit-owned buildings which brought together a group of nonprofits to own their own building. What I am trying to add to that is the retail, the green retail piece, Green-Mart, the opposite of Wal-Mart, where all the products will be filtered for social justice and the environment, and whether you want toilet paper, or bamboo floors, or solar energy, or hemp clothing. Whatever it is you want, it will be there in that ecomall. Instead of us protesting Wal-Mart, we take their customers away and put them out of business. It is a different model. It is a positive model. What we are trying to do with The Green Festival is to say to people look, it is great that there is this culture of protest and Global Exchange has done tons of protest, we are really professionals at it, but my analogy is like the Titanic.

The Titanic of corporate domination has hit the iceberg and it is sinking. It is being rejected, thank you Mr. Bush. He has done a lot to sink the empire, but I think now the choice before us is do we run around the decks of the Titanic saying, "This boat sucks, I protest" or do we get together and build an alternative boat, a solar-powered, wind-powered boat with a party on deck, scantily-clad people with drinks in their hand dancing to cool music, and pull up alongside the Titanic. People will jump willingly, and we won't have to say, "your boat sucks", which the subtext of that is, "You are stupid. You are on a bad boat and you are so dumb you don't know it." We have got to get away from that. I think the left has been a little bit guilty of this holier than thou, "I'm so smart, you're stupid. I have this detailed critique. Look at you, you are drinking out of a Styrofoam cup."

People don't like being talked down to. I know I don't. I don't think anybody does. By just providing an alternative system, we not only have a more positive approach, you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar, but also it puts a little more onus on us. I say to leftists a lot of times, "How many people do you employ? How many paychecks come out of your work? Oh you just cover your own butt, huh? Ok, so you are signing a paycheck on the back. I sign paychecks on the front." That's hard. That's a burden. That's a psychological burden. When you go to bed at night and you are thinking, "Oh my God where am I going to come up with the money to do this next project," and you have to hustle and go out there and do it, or you have to develop a business model that can generate its own money to do that. We started the Green Festival with a $30,000 grant, a $30,000 grant. It's up to a $1.7 million dollar a year budget. So it can be done. It requires a lot of people pulling their belts in, working long hours for low pay, believing that we can do it. It can be done.

That's really what it is about. It's about the belief system. The next belief system is a spirituality that loves science. There are people in positions of power in places like Iran and Washington, D.C. who have a spirituality that rejects science. The spirituality of this green economy movement embraces science. It loves science. It has no contradiction, no problem with science. To me that's a stronger spirituality, and it's going to win in the end.

Britt: How do you keep inspired and motivated?

Kevin: Well, when I go out doing speaking mostly at college campuses, who is it that comes out to a talk about saving the world? It's the young people. They tend to be young. They tend to be book readers, so they are intelligent and they are highly motivated. They are the smart ones who give a damn. Because you have some smart ones who don't give a damn. They are cynical. Cynicism is what passes for insight when there is no courage in the backbone. So these are the ones who aren't cynical, or they are at least questioning their cynicism. They want to do something. The want to get plugged into a movement. They want that sense of global community. So if you do the talk right, they want to hang out afterwards. You have some beers. You go to somebody's place. You stay up until two or three in the morning, then you get up at six in the morning to get the plane to get to the next town, but that infuses you with so much hope because you are meeting the best people. It doesn't take 51% to make a revolution. Five to ten percent can change the world. It has happened many times before. Right now I would say we are at a historic juncture where the contrast between what is, and what could be, has never been as great.

Britt: How can people get involved? What can they do?

Kevin: Well, there's a lot of ways. If you check the website globalcitizenscenter.org, you can get on our mailing list for our little email newsletter, which only comes out every month or two. You are not going to get a bunch of garbage in your in-box. You can also check out the greenfestivals.org website where you can listen to our speakers. You can watch our speakers on videotape, David Sazuki, Tom Hayden, Amy Goodman, Medea Benjamin, all these great speakers, and the Global Exchange website which is globalexchange.org. If you want to go to Venezuela, we are doing over twenty trips a year to Venezuela where they are doing some amazing grassroots development, where the government is supportive of green grassroots development and literacy campaigns instead of being the problem obstacle, like it is here.

There is no shortage of things people can do. When I do talks, people come up to me afterwards and say, "I am only one person what can I do?" I am always tempted to say, "I am eight people, nice to meet you." Of course you are only one person, and one person really can't do that much. It's when you join with other people. Think of mosquitoes. One mosquito, it's not a big threat. A swarm of mosquitoes can drive a big animal out of its forest. So that's what we have to do. We have to develop the swarm. We have to develop team consciousness. Subordinate your ego to a group effort. The group effort at this point is how do we save humanity from itself?

Britt: Is there anything else about the Global Citizen Center that you want people to know?

Kevin: Well what I want people to do is to think forward twenty years from now where we have a Global Citizens Center in Johannesburg, Rio De Janeiro and Paris, and all these different cities around the world, so that when you travel, or you want to know what's going on in a particular place, you know that there is hub in that city where it's the cutting edge of the green revolution. It's where the transition is taking place because if we do not make a transition out of this tribal, nationalistic, God Bless America, narrow kind of thinking, we will fail in saving humanity from itself. We won't get rid of all these problems that we have.

I envision a world where there are no starving children, where there are no children without shoes, where there is no pregnant mother who can't get access to decent health care, no clear-cut forest, no endangered species. That can come about. The question is, are we going to make it happen?

I think there are two kinds of analysis. There is the analysis of the ways things are, and there is an analysis of the way we can make things be. The second type of analysis, the analysis of the activist is what we need. Jim Hightower is fond of saying that the centerpiece of the washing machine that gets the dirt out is called the agitator. So you have got to be an agitator. You need the consciousness of the agitator because we have this incredible historic challenge put in front of us, and we will be judged, if not by some white male God up in a cloud, but by history. People will look back and say, "Wow, you know, right around the turn of the millennium it's like people woke up and realized that we had to go to this green economy. Wow, it is really a good thing that they made this transition, and now here in 2080 we actually have a clean planet with no more war and all that money that used to be wasted is now put into health care and education." We can make that happen but we are the foundation layer of that.

I always think of the consciousness that must have been possessed by the Masons who laid the foundations of those cathedrals in Europe that took four centuries to build. They knew that they would not see the final product of their work, but they also knew they had to do very precise and solid work because of all the weight that was going to come on top of their work, and that's our job right now in the early 2000s is to lay the foundation layer of a future green economy where there are no clear cut forests and where we have solved these problems of soil erosion and polar icecaps melting, and future generations will thank us for it.

For more information about the Global Citizen Center go to globalcitizenscenter.org.

Britt Bravo also blogs at BlogHer, Have Fun * Do Good and NetSquared, and produces the Big Vision Podcast and NetSquared Podcast
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Transcription by CastingWords

Comments

Thanks for the interview, Britt! (and also for the castingwords link, I've been looking for decent blog transcription) Something that doesn't come across in the text-only transcript (I'll have to listen to the podcast to see if it shows up there) is the enormous presence/groundedness Kevin has. Our SF Green Festival booth was facing the Green Careers stage, and so we got to see and hear all the speakers there, and note the audience reaction, and when Kevin was on Sunday afternoon, it was noticeably more quiet, more focussed, his voice carrying across the tent. It made me want to pay attention, to learn how he communicates so effectively, if nothing else.

Posted by: Raines Cohen on January 7, 2007 11:27 AM