D.C. conference brings together emerging leaders in green jobs
By Charles Hallman
Low-income communities in recent years have been impacted by double-digit unemployment, but years earlier also were impacted by the proliferation of factories that left behind a harmful environment.
“We generate 56 million pounds of waste every year, and that goes into our backyards and into our water supply,” noted NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program Director Jacqueline Patterson during her remarks at the 2013 Good Jobs Green Jobs National Conference in Washington, D.C. in April.
“The facilities that produce [hazardous waste] are major drivers for the catastrophic climate changes we’ve [been] seeing,” she continued. “All this is happening in communities with high unemployment. People are paying 50 percent of their income to [necessities], who are underinsured in their health [coverage] and living in poverty. And people are suffering from the overall political system where money interests [impacts] decisions that are made.
“All of these factors” exist in low-income communities and communities of color, stated Patterson. “A green economy capitalizes on a holistic vision of sustainable communities, operating on environmental justice principles,” including starting green businesses and developing funding models for them, she pointed out.
Patterson later moderated a panel discussion on “The New Green Economy as a Pathway to Address the Poverty and Job Crisis in Black Communities” that featured three Black “emerging leaders” in this effort.
“If no one is going to do it, why not us,” proclaimed Green Door Initiative President and CEO Donele Wilkins of Detroit, whose organization has worked to clean up “brown fields” left behind after factories closed down years ago in several areas of the city. These sites in many cases have been contaminated by the dumping of chemicals and other waste, she pointed out.
“Everybody is talking about green, and everybody is talking about the potential of job creation and what the future will look like,” added Wilkins. “We [Blacks] for the most part aren’t engaged in those conversations. So how can we ensure that we are?
“Children and others in our community [are] disproportionately impacted by pollution and other things. It is really about who gets to plan our communities and what they are thinking about in terms of the impact and who is going to get the benefit of this. Too often children in our communities are not able to live out a normal lifestyle where they get to breathe clean air like other children, or get to enjoy playgrounds free from contaminants and other things like other children.
“Too often we’re living our lives in our communities based on someone else’s vision,” continued Wilkins. “This is about building capacity and empowering people so that we can create a vision that we can put our hands on.”
Started in 2006, Greater Bridgeport (Conn.) Community Enterprises President-CEO Adrienne Farrar Houel said her organization “at the time was filling a gap…bringing out low-income folk into the employment sector but through green jobs.” Now the nonprofit is creating “living wage green economy jobs” or what Houel called “triple bottom line businesses,” such as the mattress deconstruction business her group created in 2011.
“We have trained over 200 people, and created 33 new jobs through our company,” she said.
Akill West’s Reclamation Energy LLC is located in southeast Washington, D.C., often called “the President’s backyard, but the other side of the river, and the other side of the tracks, yet we are [still] in the capitol city of the United States of America.” It has 25 percent-plus unemployment. He added that today’s junior high and high school students aren’t being told that they need to learn the necessary skills for future cyber security, computer technology and green technology jobs.
“Too many people in our community are standing behind or championing transient construction jobs on a project that will be finished in two years,” added West. “And those jobs will be gone, and 90 percent of our community will not be able to follow those companies to the next job because of transportation and many other issues.”
However if “a true green economy” is to emerge in the Black community, it is now necessary for more Blacks to see it beyond the oft-believed notion that the green movement only involves saving trees.
After their presentations, the MSR asked Wilkins, West and Patterson to explain how “talking green” has an importance in the Black community.
“I have to make certain, as a person who’s out there advocating for this stuff, that I’m making it clear that it is about what we can do to improve the quality of life. With that, we have the opportunity for building an economic system that will be lasting and improve the environment at the same time,” said Wilkins. “It is our responsibility to get engaged.”
“Green has become so cliché,” believes West. “It is green and you’re talking about green things. [But] almost everybody has somebody in their family they can point to that has health issues as a result of the food that they eat. A lot of this food is supplied by companies who are making huge profits at the expense of people in these communities. It’s an injustice issue.”
“Even at the NAACP when we started this program, people [said], ‘Climate change? We’re dealing with double-digit unemployment, murder and other things in our community,’” recalled Patterson, who holds master’s degrees in social work and public health, and has worked on such issues as food rights and climate change.
“When we are talking about green, we are talking about livable communities,” Patterson continues, “sustainable communities and justice-based communities where we have equal access to the things that everyone else has: clean water, air and nutritious foods to eat, a crime-free existence and economic prosperity. That’s what we mean about green.”
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