Tanaka spent much of college volunteering, maintaining his sense of reality while stuck in the Harvard bubble. He tutored at a juvenile prison and interned with American Friends Service Committee, advocating for prisoners in solitary confinement, who comprise most of Massachusetts’ prisoner suicides. He and City Councilor Chuck Turner were arrested during a 2003 sit-in at the Statehouse protesting budget cuts to social services.
When the Stride Right Foundation gave Tanaka a $25,000 public service fellowship, he consulted Turner’s advisory council, which recommended addressing unemployment. “No organization was viewing it as a collective issue, rather, as an individual deficiency,” he says. Tanaka staged “speakouts” across Roxbury, and some people kept attending those listening sessions. The result was the Boston Workers’ Alliance (BWA), a grassroots nonprofit for the chronically underemployed.
While spearheading a campaign to reform Massachusetts’ Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) system (80 percent of BWA members say their records hinder employment opportunities), the BWA also launched economic development projects, including a CORI-friendly temp agency, and worker-owned green job co-ops.
“There’s a big difference between income and wealth,” Tanaka says. “If you’re trying to create wealth in a community, you need to have ownership over institutions.”
Four months ago, BWA began a pilot program converting vegetable oil to biodiesel. Three people collect 100 gallons a week from restaurants in Roxbury, Mattapan and Dorchester. “It’s nice to show people that you can hustle and get oil that people don’t want, and that’ll turn into a little income for you,” Tanaka says. BWA also plans to start a worker-owned home weatherization service.
“We want make sure the green revolution is an inclusive one,” he says. “A lot of the environmental movement has been viewed as a predominantly middle-class white movement, mostly based in natural conservation stuff and boutiquey consumer goods that are eco-friendly, so we’re trying to expand … one of our members says we’re trying to create a ‘darker shade of green.’”
Tanaka is the only BWA staff member. He’s responsible for community organizing, fundraising and legislative lobbying. Soon he’ll hire a member to take over as organizer, so he can focus on administrative duties.
Tanaka’s ultimate goal is to leave the BWA. “I’m an Asian person mostly working in a black community … I think someone black should be running the organization,” he says. “It is all about transitioning my position to people in the community.”
[Boston Workers’ Alliance, 51 Roxbury St., Roxbury. 617.427.8108. bostonworkersalliance.org]