The Green Gap

Rodney Lee's hometown of Richmond, California, has a national reputation for two things: the highest per capita murder rate in the state and one of the highest rates of breast cancer in the country. The East Bay city of 103,000 has been wracked by gang violence, with a murder rate five times the national average. It sits in the shadow of a giant Chevron refinery, and at least 400 industrial sites in the city have been listed as sources of pollution.

This is the Richmond that Lee has known for most of his 28 years. The explosion of a General Chemical company rail tanker in 1993 released a 17-mile cloud of poisonous gas, landing 25,000 residents in the hospital. Lee recalls some kind of spill every three months throughout his life, due to nearby industrial plants like the Tesoro Petroleum refinery. The companies often offered Lee and his neighbors settlement money, which folks in this economically depressed city were happy to take. "That's like the thing Richmond people do for money, wait for chemical spills and go apply for the money they give you to be quiet about it," Lee says.

Lee is well acquainted with money troubles. After an extended illness forced him to take time off from his job at the local telephone company, he couldn't find steady employment. He worked a variety of minimum-wage service jobs, but had been out of work for three months last year when a cousin convinced him to enroll in Richmond BUILD, a job-training program the city government launched in 2007 to prepare residents for jobs in construction, energy efficiency, and solar power. "I never even seen a solar panel before I joined the program," Lee says. Seven weeks later, he was up on a roof installing them. The idea of working in solar energy captivated him, and he started practicing for interviews in order to secure a job in the industry. When he graduated in December, he had already landed a position as an operations assistant with Solar City, a local company.

It's through people like Lee that Richmond BUILD hopes to address the city's poverty, violence, and toxic legacy -- and put Richmond on the map as a starting point for a new green economy. Some students come to the program after doing time in prison for dealing drugs. Many didn't finish high school and have never held down a full-time job. One graduate recently confided in his instructor that he couldn't work in one part of town because he'd been shot in the chest there last year. Students in the program wear T-shirts that are bright orange -- a color chosen because it isn't associated with any local gangs.

Through Richmond BUILD, people like Lee are changing not only their lives but the face of environmentalism. As revolutionary as it may sound to those only acquainted with the "Save the Whales"?style green movement, efforts to directly connect social and environmental concerns aren't new. For 30 years, "environmental justice" groups from around the country have expressed concern about the disproportionate impact of pollution on low-income communities of color, and called upon the mainstream environmental movement to take up the issues of the people who live there. But despite the fact that these communities have borne the brunt of the dirty-energy economy, they have been largely left out of the national environmental conversation.

Now, as the country faces a growing threat of climate change, environmental- and social-justice activists are uniting to articulate a set of solutions that both overhaul the old, dirty economy and overcome the country's class and race divides. "Green-collar jobs" programs like Richmond BUILD have been gaining traction at both the local and federal level, highlighting the need to ensure that Lee and his classmates have a role in moving their cities toward a cleaner economy. If the new movement is successful, the green economy could be one that lifts all boats?and breaks down the barriers that have segregated both the environmental community and the country.

***

The economic potential associated with greening the country is nothing to scoff at. Studies have shown that if the United States were to make a meaningful investment in clean energy and efficiency, 40 million new jobs could be created by 2030, making one in five jobs in the country some shade of green. But most people working in green technology today fit the environmentalist stereotype -- white college graduates who drive Priuses and buy organic -- and without a conscious effort, this new green economic sector stands a chance of passing by low-income people of color, much like the dot com boom did. Projects like Richmond BUILD are now laying the groundwork to prevent that from happening yet again.

At the forefront of this convergence of green economic development and social-justice work is Van Jones, co-founder of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, an Oakland-based organization that works to keep urban youth out of jail. Jones soon realized that young people in Oakland needed opportunities to escape the poverty and violence in the city, and he saw great potential for jobs in the green economy. "I had to think long and hard about what kind of jobs I thought were legitimate jobs for the young people I want to fight for," Jones says. "We came up with the slogan ?Green Jobs Not Jails.' Then all of a sudden everybody started calling me an environmentalist."

But for Jones, "environmentalism" is "almost too narrow to refer to the changes that need to happen as environmental changes." He says, "We're going to have to have a major shift in the U.S. economy and U.S. culture in order to not just achieve sustainability but to achieve survivability." Over the past few years, he and other young eco-equity advocates have helped bring that message into the national spotlight. Jones, a charismatic spokesperson, has traveled the country to talk to groups ranging from the NAACP to congressional staffs. In September 2007, he announced he was leaving his post at the Ella Baker Center to launch Green For All, a new, national organization to promote green jobs and environmental justice.

Jones is bringing to the national stage what has been percolating in communities across the country since around 1978, when Dr. Robert Bullard, an environmental sociologist often referred to as the "father of environmental justice," conducted one of the first studies of the disproportionate impact of pollution on communities of color, analyzing the locations of garbage dumps in Houston's black neighborhoods. He found that though the city was only 25 percent African American at the time, 100 percent of all the city-owned landfills were in black neighborhoods. Bullard went on to document similar patterns across the South throughout the 1980s, and his studies helped spur the emergence of environmental-justice groups nationwide to address concerns like the staggering rates of asthma, lead poisoning, and cancer caused by the factories and refineries so often located in poor neighborhoods. "We have documented over the years that there is discrimination in housing, employment, education, voting, and health care," Bullard says. "Why should people not believe that there is discrimination in the application of environmental protection?"

Bullard and many environmental-justice advocates note that the mainstream environmental movement's focus on regulating pollution in the 1960s and 1970s, with landmark accomplishments like the passages of the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, paid little attention to the interests of low-income communities of color. Well-off white communities were better equipped to take advantage of the new laws, and it seemed to many environmental-justice advocates that these regulations often had the effect of shifting the pollution to communities that didn't have the financial or political clout to fight them.

While this nascent environmental-justice movement was based largely in urban, minority communities, similar work was being done in poor, white, rural areas in places like West Virginia, where coal mining has devastated the environment and residents' health. For these groups, "the environment" wasn't a far-off rainforest or national park but their own backyards?"where we live, work, play, and pray."

But the movement's roots are in urban communities of color. In Richmond, residents united to form the West County Toxics Coalition in 1986, which has pushed for emissions monitoring at Chevron and other refineries. In Oakland, where one in five sixth-graders has asthma, community members have been working since the 1980s to address air-quality concerns related to the 1,500 diesel trucks that weave through the working-class neighborhood of West Oakland on their way to the port. And until environmental-justice groups forced them out of town, a yeast factory and a medical-waste incinerator also plagued the neighborhood, according to Nancy Nadel, a West Oakland resident and city council member who, along with her late husband Chappell Hayes, was one of the first environmental-justice advocates in the city. In the early 1980s, Hayes was known for his creative ways of spreading the word about neighborhood pollution, organizing a youth "eco-rap" group and an African American environmental group called "Greens and Cornbread."

But Hayes' brand of culturally relevant green activism was completely absent from the mainstream environmental movement throughout most of the 1980s and 1990s. Most big green groups are driven by their predominantly white, middle-class, and college-educated membership, often leaving the concerns of low-income communities of color out of the national conversation. Groups like the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) and Sierra Club focused on conservation and "deep ecology" work -- open space, deforestation, melting glaciers, dying polar bears, and, most recently, climate change. Inner-city pollution was not on the agenda. "Our members weren't coming from those neighborhoods, and they weren't talking about those problems," says Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club. "We didn't know about those problems because we didn't live there."

Environmental racism came to the attention of many groups for the first time in 1990 when Bullard published his seminal book, Dumping in Dixie. But the environmental-justice and mainstream environmental movements remained largely segregated. One recent University of Michigan study found that more than one-third of mainstream green groups didn't have a single nonwhite person on staff. Neither did one-fifth of government environmental agencies. The same is true in the green innovation and technology fields. Most low-income people of color didn't see their interests reflected in mainstream environmentalism, and therefore didn't see a reason to work within that movement. "That was pretty much the case with environmental organizations around the country," says Jerome Ringo, the immediate past chairman of the National Wildlife Federation. "Poor people were more concerned about next month's rent than depletion of the ozone layer. There was a major disconnect between organized conservationists and the environmental-justice movement."

Ringo is one person who has confronted this divide. His selection as chairman of the NWF in 2005 made him the first African American leader of a major national environmental group, and he also served as the lone African American delegate to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol negotiations. Ringo now heads the Apollo Alliance, a coalition of business, labor, and environmental leaders that advocates for government investment in green jobs and energy independence.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ringo came to the mainstream movement from environmental-justice work. In the 1980s, while working in the oil refineries of his home state of Louisiana, he began organizing in the communities affected by the petrochemical industry. When his employer told him he had to choose between his job and his advocacy work, Ringo left the refinery to join the Louisiana Wildlife Federation, where he became the only African American out of the group's 24,000 members at that time. "Conservationists were sportsmen. They were the people who would fish to hang the fish on the wall. Those people who would fish to put a fish on a plate didn't join clubs," Ringo says. "They couldn't afford to anyway."

But that dynamic is changing, Ringo says, as climate change presents a common threat. He points to the devastation following Hurricane Katrina as an example of how the environmental-justice and mainstream green agendas are converging. "When you [heard] mainstream environmentalists talk about global warming, the talk used to be the effect on polar bears and birds," Ringo says. "Hurricane Katrina was able to blow the cover off so many issues, and exposed the public to the importance of dealing with issues like global warming and its impacts [on] people from all walks of life."

***

Even after an eye-opening event like Katrina, it never really occurred to Rodney Lee and his classmates at Richmond BUILD that climate change is something they should be worried about. It was their coursework?particularly the solar and environmental education part -- that brought the issue home for them. "Everybody in our class was really amazed, because they never knew anything about it, or ever really heard the term global warming before," Lee says. There are simply more immediate concerns for most people in Richmond. "They're not worried about polar bears," says Fred Lucero Jr., project manager for Richmond BUILD. "They're worried about a leak in the roof or how to get from here to there without getting beat up or shot."

For the students of Richmond BUILD, green jobs are a practical way of joining the environmental movement. And in doing so, they're merging the two long-separate strands of environmentalism. No longer is it only about protecting endangered species or faraway glaciers. Environmentalism is also about putting food on the table and reducing asthma rates in your community.

Green-collar jobs are also resonating with political leaders, offering them the twofer of saving the environment while at the same time creating good, local jobs. In Oakland, the Ella Baker Center recently persuaded the city government to invest $250,000 in a Green Jobs Corps, which will launch in the fall. The Corps' three-month program will be the first of its kind in the country, training 40 to 50 city residents with barriers to employment for jobs in renewable energy and efficiency. The Green Jobs Corps is based on a model conceived by Raquel Rivera Pinderhughes, a professor at San Francisco State University who has spent 20 years studying the disproportionate impact of pollution in low-income communities. Pinderhughes, who coined the term "green-collar jobs," explains, "It's a model about how we're going to integrate people who have been locked out of the most vital parts of the American social fabric."

It's no coincidence that these job-training programs are taking off in places like Oakland and Richmond, which are home to a vibrant environmental-justice movement. In Oakland, justice activist Nancy Nadel now sits on the city council and was pivotal in getting funding for the Green Jobs Corps. And as these programs take off, Pinderhughes notes, the environmental-justice movement is critical to ensuring that green jobs remain well-paid positions with good benefits and working conditions. Pinderhughes and the Ella Baker Center are creating a green employers' council to make sure that these businesses are open to the idea of bringing in people who have been left out of the economy. After all, what good is training these students to install solar panels if no business will hire them?

***

Now that green issues top the country's list of concerns, Van Jones cautions, "it's important that we don't forget the lessons of the last century about the importance of including everybody in our hearts and our minds, and our policy." For Jones, environmental-justice work is a continuation of the civil-rights movement. "If Dr. King were alive today, he would be standing in the flood waters of Katrina saying that in an age of floods, we can't leave our neighbors to sink or swim," Jones says. "He'd be saying, let's not create a racially segregated green economy."

So far, Jones and his new organization, Green For All, have been critical in bringing social-justice issues to the fore of the environmental discussion. The group scored its first national victory last December when Congress passed the Green Jobs Act as part of the energy bill. The legislation, shepherded through Congress by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, included $25 million per year for programs like Richmond BUILD and the Oakland Green Jobs Corps that create "pathways out of poverty" for low-income people of color. Advocates like Ringo have also been instrumental in moving the green-jobs agenda forward. In his role as president of the Apollo Alliance, Ringo sat down with all of the Democratic presidential hopefuls and with Sen. John McCain early in the primary season to push investment in jobs programs with attention to equity concerns. His work paid off: Green-collar jobs made their way into the climate and energy plans of all the leading Democratic presidential candidates. Sen. Hillary Clinton even borrowed the alliance's language, promising an "Apollo-like effort" in clean, renewable energy.

It's not just politicians who are finally getting behind environmental-justice initiatives. Many mainstream green groups have also shown steady improvement on this front. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, prompted in large part by the work of environmental-justice advocates, some mainstream groups added toxics divisions and began partnering with local justice groups. To be sure, environmental-justice work still isn't the most visible portion of the mainstream environmental agenda, and the default imagery on the Web sites of many groups remains animals and ice caps. But groups like Sierra Club, which was one of the first to adopt an environmental-justice division in 1996, have begun partnering with local advocates in places like central Appalachia and Louisiana. Sierra Club also joined with United Steelworkers in 2006 to promote green-jobs policies.

"Environmental organizations have to have a willingness to meet the poor, minority communities where they are and to embrace the issues that are important to those communities," Ringo says. From there, he explains, green groups can begin talking about issues like climate change and bring more poor people and people of color into the environmental movement. The National Wildlife Foundation, in large part because of Ringo's leadership, has added programs to develop environmental awareness and leadership skills in minority high school and college students. Reaching out to these young people, Ringo says, requires working with them on their immediate concerns, and not just expecting them to come to the environmental movement on their own.

As Greenpeace U.S. climate campaign director Chris Miller affirms, climate change has certainly moved human impacts to the center of Greenpeace's talking points. Best known for its work protecting whales, the organization has also adopted a toxics campaign that works on environmental health issues. "I appreciate the fact that for a low-income community in Los Angeles, our work in the southern ocean around whales doesn't impact their lives in a big way," Miller says. But, he's quick to note, that doesn't mean Greenpeace will abandon its "Save the Whales" work anytime soon.

While they are happy to see shifts underway in the mainstream groups, environmental-justice advocates still see a need for their brand of activism. "The environmental-justice movement is not about creating little brown Greenpeaces or little black Audubon Societies or little red Wildlife Federations," Bullard says. "We need our own organizations, but at the same time we want to make sure that these other groups are open so that people who want to work in those organizations have that opportunity."

Of course, it may take awhile for the green movement to start looking more like America. But programs like Richmond BUILD are bridging the long-standing chasm by giving people like Rodney Lee a toehold in environmentalism -- and access to the opportunities that a new green economy can provide. One year into the program, 10 Richmond BUILD graduates are already working in efficiency and renewable energy. Lee, one of only two African Americans working for Solar City, says he wants to work toward a job as operations manager there. The $18-an-hour wages and full benefits for him and his family -- not to mention getting to reduce the pollution emanating from his hometown and making it a better place for his 1-year-old son, Zaire -- make the job pretty appealing.

"Not only is my salary going to help him out in his development and growth, it also helps the development and growth of the planet, so it will be a safer environment for when he gets grown up," Lee says. "Hopefully, I can be able to pass on all the things that I know to him, and hey, maybe he can grow up and get a green job as well."

You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)

Connect
, after login or registration your account will be connected.
Advertisement