(Logo Design: Susanna Ronner)
For well over a decade, the activist, organizer and singer-songwriter Rebecca Martin has been an essential, galvanizing force of positive civic change. In her adopted hometown of Kingston, N.Y., and throughout neighboring cities and towns, she’s helmed inspired new programming with a mission of conservation and outreach. But most important, Martin has sought to empower local citizens to participate in their governments and communities. OurCitizens.org, a new 501c3 nonprofit serving Ulster County that will launch in May of 2019 – in time for Martin’s 50th Birthday – is Martin’s most significant step yet in her pursuit to help folks connect to each other and to their representatives. With a talented, diverse staff of professionals and volunteers as well as an innovative web tool and app, OurCitizens.org will provide invaluable resources for a vast range of civic engagement, from public-works projects to protecting vital natural resources—especially the Hudson River.
Martin’s path to advocacy has been an unlikely one. She moved to Kingston with her husband, Larry Grenadier, in 2002, choosing it primarily on its strengths as a commuter hub. After years in New York City they were in search of space and quietude, and Kingston delivered both; it was also close enough to the city and the major airports that they could sustain their thriving music careers. Among the finest bass players of his generation, Grenadier has been a trusted collaborator to some of the most important figures in jazz history; to give but one example, he’s anchored pianist Brad Mehldau’s generation-defining trio for a quarter-century.
Martin not only witnessed Grenadier’s historic peer group come of age in jazz; she was in many ways immersed in it herself. In 1995, after having been employed as a producer for MTV Networks and deciding to focus on her performing career, she made her major-label debut in the duo Once Blue, alongside the Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Jesse Harris. With its cultivated union of folk and pop, and its sharp use of jazz-rooted harmony and personnel, Once Blue outlined a hybrid creative space that Martin would explore in the ensuing decades. Through her artistically liberating work with the great jazz drummer Paul Motian, a wide range of solo albums, and collaborations like the jazz-folk vocal group Tillery, she’s consistently garnered fans and impressed critics, even as they’ve struggled to define her music. “If comparisons must be made,” wrote the magazine JazzTimes, “let’s give Martin proper due and credit her as the logical successor to Joni Mitchell.”
A couple of years after settling into Kingston, Martin and Grenadier became pregnant with their son, Charlie, and suddenly found themselves looking at their city with a new kind of scrutiny. In 2006, Martin noted a flagrant red flag in the form of weapon-caliber knives being sold in a Citgo station, located just down the street from her home and bookended by a middle school and a high school. Martin confronted the station owner about his wares, and he argued that they were souvenirs that could only be purchased by legal adults.
Martin felt she couldn’t ignore what was an obvious threat to her neighborhood, but what to do? She had done plenty of organizing over the years, but it was usually with the mission of strengthening the music community and providing performance opportunities for rising artists. A new friend (Jennifer Schwartz Berky, who would become one of Martin’s key collaborators) who worked as a county planner introduced Martin to the concept of an alderman, an important governmental role that includes both representing local constituents and making decisions about larger city policy. But when she reached out to her representative—repeatedly—she received no response.
“I don’t know what possessed me, but I decided that I was going to raise awareness about this issue. I was certain that at least half of the knives in the case were illegal weapons,” Martin recalls. She papered the streets and brought the knives to the attention of her neighbors, many of whom were as dismayed as she was. The local media, not used to this style of citizens’ engagement at that time, seized on the story. Martin decided to host a public forum on the issue, and nearly 100 citizens turned up, including Kingston’s mayor and chief of police. The discussion turned into a rallying cry—the knives needed to go—and following a police raid, they were in fact discovered to be illegal and confiscated. The shop owner, not realizing he purchased illegal goods from a Texas-based company, was able to get his money back, and Martin had experienced the revelation of working for the public good. “It was thrilling,” she remembers. “It was an important experience, for someone becoming newly civically involved, to find that with just a little bit of elbow grease and work, an average citizen can make profound changes in their community.”
Martin, by then a young mother, began hosting monthly citizens’ meetings to address the various concerns within her ward and hometown. Over the next two years, the meetings featured insightful dialogue on a wide range of issues, from zoning to garbage collection to sex offenders and comprehensive planning. Subject experts would be invited to provide information, and high-ranking city officials would hear out their constituents. “We made some big things happen,” Martin says, “and it was a little group—just one ward.” The Ward 9 Community Group evolved into KingstonCitizens.org: an in-person and online platform where concerns were addressed in a public setting that held representatives accountable to the people. The website and, later, its companion blog, became an educational resource for Kingston folks to learn about how their government works, and about how they could use it to improve their wards and city.
The progress that has transpired over the past decade has been nothing short of profound. KingstonCitizens.org was able to secure respect and comfort for Chiz’s Heart Street, a group home for the mentally ill that was unjustly seen as a blight by its neighbors. A buying club became a thriving food co-op. A proposed gun store and shooting range was prevented from setting up shop in the heart of midtown, across the street from a high school.
For two years Martin homed in on fresh opportunities as the Executive Director of the Kingston Land Trust, a new not-for-profit initiated by citizens who were part of the city’s Ward 9 Community Group. (One of those citizens is Kingston’s current mayor, Steve Noble.) Martin’s leadership resulted in inspired new programming for the organization. Urban farms and youth-farming programs were established. A Rail Trail Committee created unprecedented hiking and biking opportunities. An African-American slave and freed-slave cemetery in Kingston was protected. With its dedication to community programming that promotes conservation, the urban Land Trust became an innovative model touted by the Land Trust Alliance.
Around the time that Martin became deeply involved with the Kingston Land Trust, she stepped away from KingstonCitizens.org; to helm both organizations at once, she says, would’ve been a conflict of interest and her limited time. Martin left KingstonCitizens.orgs’ website and social-media pages up—there was no sense in doing away with four years’ worth of invaluable resources in civics and legislation—but her focus had shifted. Soon enough, however, KingstonCitizens.org would become engaged in the fight of its life.
In August of 2014, Martin spotted a small news item that detailed how a bottled-water supplier was exploring a possible move into Kingston’s sister town of Ulster. It was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it notice, but it gave Martin cause for alarm. After all, she’d come up in Maine, where Nestlé hid behind the homegrown Poland Spring brand, exploiting the lack of water laws in economically depressed towns while giving little back to the community; today, the corporation has a disturbing amount of influence on the state government. There was also a bedrock of common sense underlying Martin’s trepidation. As she told the New Yorker in an article about the cause: “What’s more important than drinking water? Nothing.”
Stealthily, that previously undisclosed bottled-water company, Niagara Bottling, began to dig in. A month later Martin noticed another bit of news, of a much less hypothetical nature. Niagara had already gained approval from the planning board in Ulster. Even more troubling, the company had obtained a will-serve letter from Kingston, in which the city preliminarily agreed to provide the water requirements that would make the Ulster facility possible.
It wasn’t difficult to see what attracted Niagara to the area. Ulster already had plenty of water-related infrastructure in place, most of it built to satisfy the demands of what is today known as TechCity, a business park that fostered more than 7,000 IBM employees during its ’80s heyday. The city had struck a deal to use up to a million gallons of water per day from Kingston’s reservoir, though it rarely if ever did; in general, the agreement resulted in light use. The Niagara plans looked very, very different—1.75 million gallons per day, a figure the corporation would certainly strive to meet—and would have had an environmentally devastating impact on three communities: Kingston, Ulster and Woodstock, where Kingston’s reservoir is located. Quickly, Martin reactivated KingstonCitizens.org, began raising awareness and formed a coalition of partners that included environmental organizations, citizens and allies within the local government.
She found she had not only the people on her side, but the law as well. New York, it turned out, harbors a rare but useful piece of legislation called the State Environmental Quality Review Act, or SEQR. Essentially, this stipulation requires state and local governments to consider potential environmental impacts before cutting deals with outfits like Niagara; further, it puts the breaks on the swift, calculated takeover that such corporations have perfected—especially in communities that are willing to forgo the scant local water legislation they may or may not be aware of. Furthermore, any public funds that a corporation wants to obtain cannot be released until a SEQR review process is complete. In the Niagara fight, one of Martin and her cohorts’ most potent weapons was their ability to eliminate the company’s grant-funding and tax-incentive prospects.
More than 400 people turned out for an early meeting to discuss the water-bottling proposal, and that number of concerned citizens continued to grow. “[The Niagara battle] really blew the doors off the work. It changed it,” Martin says. “What I was doing became part of a regional issue or regional effort, and our organization was ground zero for information on the proposal.”
Within five short months, in February of 2015, the 300-million-dollar company decided that the citizen-led opposition was too mighty and withdrew its efforts. “It was unbelievable,” Martin says. “It was such a thrill.” But the work wasn’t done. In collaboration with her mentor, environmental lawyer Kate Hudson, Martin started on the path to legislation that would protect Kingston’s water supply from future profiteering. Within two months a new wave of activism was rolling, and after many local law passages and the unanimous approval of the city council, a referendum appeared on the ballot the following fall. Through a simple four-word change to “water powers” in the City of Kingston’s charter, any water sales occurring outside Kingston’s corporate boundaries would require the go-ahead from the Kingston Common Council. It passed, by a landslide. “It was a mayoral year,” Martin recalls, “and we had more people show up for that vote in the fall than voted in the race for mayor.” Finally, with the inclusion of the Common Council, water sales had oversight.
Through the process of battling Niagara, KingstonCitizens.org also found its place among an expanding network of dedicated nonprofits. Martin and her colleagues didn’t let Niagara off the hook, either. When the company cropped up in Bloomfield, Connecticut, Martin and her cohorts went into action, warning the local government and citizens and educating them on how to navigate the civic process. Connecticut’s existing water laws allowed Niagara to gain a foothold, but KingstonCitizens.org’s coaching led to incredible self-empowerment in Bloomfield; folks there formed their own citizens’ group, the sister organization BloomfieldCitizens.org, whose members ended up all running for office and succeeding by filling every seat (including Mayor).
A similar sea change occurred more recently in the Town of Ulster. There, a new platform, TownofUlsterCitizens.org, was modeled after KingstonCitizens.org. Its goal is to prevent the addition of a 20-megawatt fracked gas peaker power plant only 600 feet from a residential neighborhood. The group, already in its first year, is taking on a host of other important community issues, including the town budget, and is encouraging newly active residents to run for office.
These days Martin is also engrossed in her duties in the Water Quality Program at Riverkeeper, the clean-water advocacy group dedicated to protecting the Hudson River. (Among the recent Riverkeeper projects of which Martin is most proud is an inter-municipal council agreement of the seven communities who drink from the river, known as the Hudson 7.)
Now, with the launch of the nonprofit OurCitizens.org, Martin wants to help the people of Ulster County improve, protect and enjoy their communities like never before—with more efficiency, transparency and experience. Seasoned staff members with backgrounds in areas like environmental and municipal law and planning will be on hand to provide invaluable input for new programming initiatives; they’ll also be there to give generous guidance and support when the next water-bottling corporation or power plant decides to swoop in. In addition to these on-the-ground resources, a web tool and app are currently being developed by Martin and graduate students from the School of Visual Arts Design for Social Innovation in New York City. Through technology, citizens will be able to quickly and directly identify and contact their representatives and organize their fellow constituents.
The hard-earned lessons Martin employed as an artist continue to bolster her work in activism. “The way I organize and the way I make music are very similar,” she explains. “To make art or to imagine civic strategies requires time and space, though being on the bandstand and in the field also requires collaboration and teamwork that is nimble, quick and flexible. You get to know the projects cold and then you have to make decisions in the moment, taking so much into consideration to shape them and to make it all work.
– Evan Haga, January 2019
JOIN OUR TEAM AND PROVIDE INVALUABLE INSIGHT AS WE WORK TO IMPROVE LOCAL CIVIC ENGAGEMENT IN ULSTER COUNTY!
KingstonCitizens.org and OurCitizens.org is proud to team up with social designers from the School of Visual Arts to build a digital tool that will help to improve local civic engagement in Ulster County. We are looking for citizens of any age, ethnicity, education level and background to give us feedback with 3-4 sessions. Participants will be invited to join us in New York City on May 7th for the School of Visual Arts Showcase to unveil the new digital tool – and the launch of OurCitizens.org!
To become a volunteer, sign-up at: www.ulstercountyvolunteers.com