The Pennsylvania Community Rights Network (PCRN) was formed to carry out this mission:

“To organize a people’s constitutional convention of delegates, representing municipal communities, to secure the inalienable right to local self-government free from corporate and state preemption.”

To accomplish this, PCRN has formed a non-partisan, statewide organization made up of a network of independent County-based chapters. Representatives from participating municipalities in each County make up each County chapter. The glue that binds these chapters together is their common focus on asserting fundamental rights to achieve constitutional change that liberates local community self-government. PCRN has grown out of the local grassroots organizing that the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund has assisted Pennsylvania communities with for over 15 years. That work includes assisting communities to draft Community Bills of Rights  – in effect, local constitutions – that assert new civil and political rights for the community, and then prohibit those activities that would infringe on those rights. 

Fracking is just the latest assault on Pennsylvania’s communities. Whether coal mining, clear-cutting of forests, factory farms, toxic waste incinerators, dumping sewage sludge on our farmland, or any number of other harms that have destroyed Pennsylvania’s communities over the past 200 years, fracking is just the latest. Until we change our governing structures to recognize the inherent rights of communities to govern themselves democratically, we will keep fighting these harms one at a time, fracturing our resources, and never changing the fundamental structures that always keep community interests subservient to corporate profits.

We don’t have a fracking problem, or a factory farm problem; we have a democracy problem. If we were not denied the right to govern corporate behavior in our communities and prohibit state-permitted harms, we would not have to confront all the single issue assaults that keep us “busy fighting the frackers,” et al.  It’s time to cure the disease and stop trying to treat one symptom at a time.

PCRN is about more than just environmental issues: its mission is to change the legal and political frameworks that currently allow state and corporate interests to deny the rights of Pennsylvanians. While environmentalists are an integral part of this effort, we’re going to need a much larger coalition of folks focused on asserting rights, and protecting the health, safety and welfare of their communities.

Rights and local self-government are not just about environmental issues; they encompass every area of our lives, from decisions about food, energy, water, transportation, and yes, the environment.

The right to local self-government is absolute, and should not depend on getting the “right people” elected in order to allow us to protect our communities. Further, under our current structure of law, there are a number of legal doctrines codified within our state and federal constitutions that handcuff elected officials once they get into office. We need to change the constitution in order to free up those that we elect to office to actually have the freedom to do the right thing.

The structure of law under Pennsylvania’s current constitution systematically strips communities of the power to adopt laws to protect their health and safety, particularly when those laws come into direct conflict with corporate decisionmaking. This system prohibits communities from banning projects and activities that they consider dangerous and harmful – everything from corporate factory farms to the land dumping of sewage sludge and “hydro-fracking” for shale gas. Unfortunately, Pennsylvania communities have found out the hard way that the existing structure does not provide a remedy for these problems, and that a corporate minority, with the blessing of the state, has almost wholesale control over our communities on almost any issue that really matters.

 In the original 1776 Pennsylvania constitution, County-based representatives could call for amendments or for a convention. But that authority was stripped out, leaving citizens with no authority to make changes in the way our government operates. Pennsylvania’s current constitution (Article XI) places sole authority for proposing amendments and constitutional conventions in the hands of the legislature. Lawmakers may submit a question to the voters, but citizens have no formal process for doing so. The General Assembly has been given the authority originally belonging to the people to set the terms for how a convention is called, including who will be involved, and what kinds of issues will be considered and discussed.

Article I, Section II, of the Pennsylvania state constitution states:

All power is inherent in the people, and all free governments are founded on their authority and instituted for their peace, safety and happiness. For the advancement of these ends they have at all times an inalienable and indefeasible right to alter, reform or abolish their government in such manner as they may think proper.”

In short, the authority for changing Pennsylvania’s constitution remains in the people at all times. The General Assembly works for us, not the other way around. This is not an unsubstantial argument. It is, in fact, the very argument used by the General Assembly when, in the name of the people, it called for the constitutional convention that stripped the people of formal (but not actual) amending authority.

This process will need to be debated and democratically approved by the people of Pennsylvania. There are a number of possibilities, including electing delegates at the local level to represent their municipal communities at the state convention. Larger cities might send delegates from each neighborhood, ward, or original municipality that was later annexed by the City. Conversations on this very issue are already happening within County chapters; the chapters can serve as Petri dishes to develop delegate-selection processes that can then be discussed and debated at the County and then state level.

The short answer is this: until it’s done. The rights of Pennsylvania’s residents and communities are being trampled on. The history of popular struggles in the United States that focused on changing the law to expand or return rights and protections for more people–such as the Abolitionists and Suffragists–teach us that this will not be a struggle that is won next week. It will require building a community rights movement that harnesses the energy of Pennsylvanians engaged in short-term resistance against corporate harms within our communities–such as against fracking or factory farms–and marries that energy with a longer term strategy to change the structures of law that have subordinated our communities to corporate and state preemption in the first place.

The County chapters are the lifeblood of PCRN. They are the hubs that draw energy from communities within the County, and then amplify that energy to join with other Counties to force state constitutional change. The County chapters represent the interests of each County’s communities, and advocate for constitutional changes to secure and protect their rights.

Most County chapters form around the values and assumptions contained within the Chambersburg Declaration (1), and hold it as their guiding vision and mission statement. Chapters are structured around committees, focused on areas that include Outreach, Historical, Organizing, Media, and Administrative.

The County chapters act as hubs for driving constitutional change. They facilitate and harness energy originating within the County’s municipalities, and then amplify that energy to join forces with other County chapters focused on securing and protecting community rights.

(1) In February 2010, citizens from more than a dozen Pennsylvania counties met in Chambersburg, PA, to initiate plans to convene delegates from municipalities across the state to propose changes to the Pennsylvania state constitution; this gathering culminated with the issuance of the Chambersburg Declaration, which presents the case for why a community-driven movement to change Pennsylvania’s constitution is necessary.

The Pennsylvania Community Rights Workshop is an 11-hour seminar that takes an in-depth look at how Pennsylvania’s political and legal structures have been set up to protect the interests of an elite minority, at the expense of the majority of Pennsylvanians. The workshop looks at how Pennsylvania’s constitution has continually evolved since the American Revolution to protect wealth and privilege over community self-government; how corporations in Pennsylvania have been granted privileges that are legally protected as rights and how those legal protections place the property interests of a minority above the fundamental rights of all Pennsylvanians, including their right to self-government of the state and the communities in which they live; it also tells how Pennsylvanians have pushed back against these oppressive structures to reclaim democracy in their communities.

Finally, we’ll consider what it would take to create a Pennsylvania constitution that protects the rights of people, communities, and nature by securing our inalienable right to local self-government, free from corporate and state interference.

No. PCRN is about common sense changes to Pennsylvania’s constitution. Our legal and political structures should never be about excluding anyone from participating in changing them simply because they are not a lawyer or historian. Most folks agree that constitutions should be about protecting rights; about allowing communities to protect their health, safety, and welfare; about elevating the rights of a community above the rights of a corporation; and about ensuring consent of the governed, where those who are being affected by decisions are the ones making them.

These common sense ideas are currently missing from Pennsylvania’s constitution. We don’t need advanced degrees in history or law to agree on these fundamental changes, and then make them — because we have the inalienable right to do it.

Pennsylvania has had 5 constitutional conventions since the American Revolution. The means and methods for calling those conventions varied greatly, depending on the culture at the time, the makeup of the legislature, and popular support and pressure.

We can expect resistance from those who benefit from the current constitutional structure. This includes chartered corporations that are currently licensed and permitted by our state legislature to harm our communities. Many elected officials also benefit from the structure as it is, and will be likely to resist fundamental changes to the state’s power structure. There will likely be resistance through the media as well, with the PCRN project getting framed in a negative light by those who have the money and the resources…much in the same way that campaigns for political office are run.

These are not insurmountable obstacles, though we must challenge ourselves to stay resolute and focused on the larger picture of changing Pennsylvania’s constitution to recognize expanded civil and political rights for all Pennsylvanians.