Olivia Caldwell is a young, single mother who lives in Oakland, a city wracked by unemployment, foreclosures, escalating high school dropout rates, and violent crime. Olivia herself served time for petty theft.
When she was released from prison, she joined Oakland’s Green Jobs Corps, an experimental project that changed her life. Backed by local trade unions and community colleges, 40 paid trainees were prepared for green construction jobs, primarily in solar panel installation. The program worked, and today, small as it may be in size, it is a microcosm for the future.
Because trainees and workers come from low-income communities, the Green Job Corps offers a pathway out of poverty. As Mayor Ron Dellums put it: “This is an extraordinary effort. Elegant in its simplicity and embrace. You can fight pollution and poverty simultaneously.”
The Green Job Corps began at the Ella Baker Center in Oakland, inspired by Van Jones, author of The Green Collar Economy (Harper Collins, 2008). Green collar jobs are “career track jobs,” says Van Jones. They’re family-supporting gigs that contribute to preserving and enhancing the environment. Installation of solar panels, construction and maintenance of wind turbines, urban agriculture, tree planting in cities, weatherization and retrofitting of buildings, remediation of brownfields (cleaning up abandoned, often-contaminated industrial sites), recycling and reuse of materials—these are jobs that generate local revenue, save energy, clean the environment, and cannot be exported. For the first time in their lives, many impoverished youth are gaining a tangible stake in climate solutions.
“We want the federal government to buy into what is taking place here in Oakland,” said Representative Barbara Lee. “Once the federal government buys in, I believe our nation can see what can be done. We must go green.”
She may get her wish. Oakland is not alone. A green-the-ghetto movement is already growing from the bottom up in other “inner cities”—like the South Bronx, the birthplace of break-dancing, graffiti, rap music—Hip Hop’s irrepressible culture.
The South Bronx is an environmental calamity, the poorest Congressional district in the United States. New York City transfers 40 percent of its waste into the South Bronx. Dissected by three unwanted thruways, the borough encompasses a sludge plant, four power plants, and has the lowest park-people-ratio in New York City.
South Bronx environmental activist Majora Carter, a co-founder with Van Jones of Green for All, told CNN recently: “If power plants, waste handling, chemical plants and transport systems were located in wealthy areas as quickly and easily as in poor areas, we would have had a clean, green economy decades ago.”
A few years ago Carter leveraged a $10,000 grant into a $3 million 11-mile waterfront park. “Green.” said Carter in a recent address (Al Gore was sitting in the front row), “Green is the new Black.” Carter is executive director of Sustainable South Bronx, an organization that alleviates poverty through environmental projects. Her Stewardship Training program moves the poor, especially youth, into living-wage green-collar jobs. Many of the students have prison records or were previously on public assistance. Therein is the premise of the burgeoning green economy. Nothing is wasted. All human energy is renewable. According to Carter, 85 percent of trainees and workers in the four-year program land steady green jobs from urban agriculture to green-roof installation and maintenance.
In 2007, without much fanfare, Congress enacted a Green Jobs Act, providing a modest amount of money—$125 million—for workforce training in the clean energy sector. The bill provides training for at-risk youth, ex-prisoners, returning veterans, and families that fall well below the poverty line.
And now, at long last, the president is an environmentalist. His clean energy agenda calls for five million green jobs in the next 10 years. Last week Obama picked Hilda Solis, who authored the Green Jobs Act, for Secretary of Labor.
The environmental movement today is more inclusive, more economically savvy, than the conservation movements of the past. For many decades the environmental movement in the U.S. lacked a practical economic agenda. Oil and auto industries dominated elections by convincing voters that environmentalism threatens jobs and economic stability. The oil industry even convinced the AFL-CIO to lobby against the Kyoto Protocol.
Now the tables are turned. Far from threatening jobs, the environmental agenda actually constitutes the only practical, sustainable means for long-term economic revival. That was the message of Van Jones in his Congressional testimony January 15, 2009.
Jones’ The Green Collar Economy may well become the most influential resource for the Obama administration.
Labor, after all, is a renewable source of energy. And we cannot harness the geothermal energy of the inner earth, or the powers of the wind and sun, until we also harness the untapped creativity and yearnings of the poor, who still (43 years after the promise of the Great Society) languish in ghettos, barrios and reservations of misery and neglect.
The Green Jobs Corps connects America’s poor to the noblest aim of our generation: the restoration of nature’s ecosystems, the fragile networks of mutuality that sustain all life.
Paul Rockwell is an Oakland writer.