Five Questions With: Camilo Viveiros

"We encourage people to speak up for themselves and with others and to speak to legislators and administrators not only about their personal issues, but about the policies that impact them."

Camilo Viveiros is lead organizer for the George Wiley Center, a statewide multi-racial economic justice organizing project based in Pawtucket. The grassroots agency works with the low-income community to help ease energy insecurity and other issues that exacerbate poverty. Here, Viveiros discusses some of these issues and the ways the center is advocating for change.

PBN: How long have you been a lead organizer at the George Wiley Center and what does that entail?
I’ve been at the George Wiley Center for two and a half years. As lead organizer, I work with our members to build chapters across the state, to identify patterns of problems, research social policy and develop campaigns and strategies with those who are directly affected by issues and foster support from allies. I also monitor our ongoing campaigns and issues and provide training with our members, volunteers and interns in organizing skills, like facilitating meetings, door knocking, one on one meetings, community mapping, grassroots lobbying, etc.
We offer practical assistance and go to hearings with people facing having their electric or gas utilities shut off, working with hundreds of people to prevent shutoffs and efforts to increase the accessibility of SNAP assistance to fight hunger in Rhode Island. We also educate people about the Henry Shelton Act Plan, named for George Wiley Center founder Henry Shelton. The plan allows for eligible people to save over half of the utility debt they owe. Some of the other issues that we have worked on recently include defending protections for elderly, ill, and disabled people who face utility shutoffs, and working with unemployed Rhode Islanders to advocate for more staff and support from state agencies.
When we are able to assist a person in not having their electricity shut off we are not only making a human impact that helps someone avoid medical dangers, hardship and family turmoil, but we are also saving taxpayers from the costs that would be passed on. Stopping shut offs isn’t just the compassionate thing to do, it is also the most economical way to save the taxpayers from the additional costs of foster care, nursing homes and hospital stays that occur when people are pushed into those facilitates due to the lack of strong enough utility protections.

PBN: Your agency aims to help low-income people and make systemic changes to alleviate poverty, focusing in part on energy insecurity. On Sept. 26, a ratepayer advisory board meets to discuss how some nonregulated power suppliers may not be following through on promises of lower rates. What is the center’s position on this and how are you advocating for change?
The Rate Payer Advisory Board was formed as a result of the passage of the Henry Shelton Act. We are in agreement with the Rate Payer Advisory Board’s position that supports the amendments that the Public Utilities Commission is proposing to the consumer protection requirements for nonregulated power producers. We concur with sentiments expressed in the Rate Payer Advisory Boards’ letter to the PUC, “because NPP are accelerating their marketing to the residential consumer, the RAB has sought to expand its knowledge of this alternative to the main power company.” Expanding consumer rights and increasing our education about reading the fine print is consistent with the longtime pro-consumer rights advocacy of the George Wiley Center.
Over the last few years there has been an increased influx of non-regulated power suppliers in Rhode Island. The George Wiley Center is concerned, along with Barbara Alexander, a Consumer Affairs consultant who assisted rule making and proposal for regulatory reform of retail electric makers proceedings in Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Arizona, New York and Maryland, and assisted the Rhode Island AARP in outlining some of the current issues to the Public Utilities Commission [about such consumer complaints as] misrepresentation of prices, the use of variable rates that are not predictable or even plainly stated, teaser rates, and a host of telemarketing and door to door activities that may confuse customers.
The George Wiley Center will continue to monitor the behavior of nonregulated power producers as they impact our members. We agree with the need to expand consumer protections and support efforts to increase consumer education around their practices. We will continue to encourage utility consumers to share their concerns and complaints with the attorney general as well participate in the policy discussions with the Public Utility Commission. Although we have taken some important steps toward increasing public education about them, if these efforts prove to be insufficient in addressing the negative effects on consumers then in the future we may work with state legislators to specifically expand the rights of utility consumers who sign up with non-regulated power producers (such legislation has already been passed by Connecticut and other states). We will continue to organize, increase consumer education and to take action, as we have made a difference on many policy issues over the years.

PBN: What specific steps and actions does the center take to advocate for change whether through government systems or the legislature?
We encourage people to speak up for themselves and with others and to speak to legislators and administrators not only about their personal issues, but about the policies that impact them, never forgetting that issues are about people, and that the key ingredient in achieving social change is people understanding clearly that it is worth their time and effort to strive for change and that they can make positive change together.
Since we have a track record of results and good street credentials, we have developed good faith among our members, but we can never be content, and must continually strive to organize the unorganized, so we can continue, step by step, closer to our long term goals.
We work with people to come up with solutions for their problems and turn people’s problems into issues for those who have direct decision making powers to change them. When those with decision- making power are not responsive to inquiries, appeals, demands, emails, letters, petitions then we escalate our tactics into creative, direct actions to broaden participation and public awareness around issues.
We work to change policies and practices on both the administrative level at different state agencies as well as through the passage of legislation. For example in 2011 through grassroots lobbying efforts the Henry Shelton Act was passed, which provides eligible utility consumers with an option to have 36 months to pay their back debt as well as to have the majority of their past debt forgiven.
We do a lot of educating utility consumers about our rights, and we believe that “just like muscles” unless you use your rights, then they won’t necessarily work for you.

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PBN: How does the School Breakfast Coalition help with food insecurity?
We worked with allies to expand universal breakfast programs across the state and now we are encouraging schools to bring universal breakfasts into more classrooms.
By making school breakfasts universal, we have taken away some of the stigma that keeps students from participating in the program, but it would be even better to have breakfasts distributed after the start of the school day and in classrooms to eliminate the barrier of having to come before the start of the school day to participate.
In order to expand universal breakfasts into more classrooms, we need to work with more students, parents, school committees, school departments and administrators along with workers’ organizations and businesses. It is well worth it to serve breakfasts during the school day, say during home room, in order to improve the nutrition and school performance of students and to bring in more federal resources into our schools.
Most of the funding for school breakfasts is provided through federal funds, but we will need partners in order to cover the additional costs of serving and cleaning up after breakfasts in classrooms. Please contact us if you are a parent, administrator, town official, business, union or community organizations who is interested in having this happen in your town or city.

PBN: The center also is holding a Quiz Bowl fundraiser at McCoy Stadium in Pawtucket on Sept. 26. Tell us more about it, how much money you hope to raise and how you’ll use the funds.
The Quiz Bowl is our most important fundraiser. Although we have precious monthly donors and seasonal fundraising drives, the Quiz Bowl is a chance for many allies and supporters to meet each other and have some fun. George Wiley Center board members Betsy Florin and Maggi Rogers come up with a wide array of challenging but entertaining questions and it’s always fun to have an event in the same room that the Pawsox practice their batting in!
There are a variety of ways that people, businesses and organizations can show us support from becoming a sponsor to buying tickets, to donating raffle items. Every donation is appreciated.
As a grassroots group working on policy change with the poor, funding is often more difficult to secure compared to service or charity efforts, so every dollar raised helps us to continue our work, allowing us to buy paper for fliers, keeping our copy machine and computers running, and supporting two staff who currently work at the George Wiley Center (myself as an organizer and Debbie Clark, our administrator, who does a wonderful job working with people who call and come into the George Wiley Center).
We simply wouldn’t have the capacity to keep members involved across the state or be able to field thousands of calls without the generosity of supporters during the Quiz Bowl and around the year. We hope to fund raise $20,000 at the Quiz Bowl but we would be ecstatic if we could raise even more.

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