Fighting for Green Justice

Since the 1980s, the environmental-justice movement has linked the pursuit of a greener economy with the needs of urban minority communities that have suffered more than their share of environmental assaults. Though the best publicized new jobs in the clean-energy economy are ones building wind turbines or solar-energy technology, environmental-justice leaders insist that green jobs are also about cleaning up brownfield sites, abating inner-city lead levels, monitoring urban air and water quality, developing urban gardens, and mitigating asbestos.

Beyond merely offering employment opportunities, activists say the jobs should also pay decent wages, have safe work environments, and be unionized or offer workers considerable say over how businesses operate. But now that green economic development has become fashionable, environmental-justice advocates fear that the green-jobs movement will leave their communities behind.

For two decades, the environmental-justice movement has combined protest with organizing for education, employment, and development. In 1988, a New York City urban activist named Peggy Shepherd stood on Manhattan's West Side Highway and blocked traffic to draw attention to pollution from the North River Sewage Treatment Plant that was creating respiratory problems for poor and minority residents in nearby Harlem. Another of the protestors, collectively known as the "Sewage Seven," was David Paterson, who would later become governor of New York. The activists sued the city's Department of Environmental Protection over the issue and used some of the money from the 1994 legal settlement to expand their fledgling group, WE ACT for Environmental Justice. Shepherd, the organization's current executive director, was the 2008 winner of the Jane Jacobs medal for Lifetime Leadership given by the Rockefeller Foundation.

Today, WE ACT has a staff of 17, an expansion of the team of three formed with the help of that 1994 grant. The staffers research issues affecting community and public health, educate community residents on environmental issues, and train residents to get involved in research and advocacy. For example, WE ACT's Environmental Health and Community-Based Participatory Research projects have instructed residents on surveying and mapping so that they can assess the risks of high concentrations of bus diesel fumes in their neighborhoods.

But at WE ACT's recent 20th-anniversary conference, held at New York's Fordham University in January, broad concerns emerged about how much of President Barack Obama's $780 billion economic-recovery package would actually trickle down to urban communities of color. In a keynote address, Rep. Charles Rangel, Harlem's longtime congressman, reassured the conference by announcing that the House had included $10 billion in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for community-organization work on energy efficiency and pollution education. But he ducked audience questions about whether those funds would target minority organizations and communities.

The money in the final stimulus bill fell far short of Rangel's $10 billion. The actual money for worker training and new employment in energy projects was below $5 billion. And the government's policy on targeting communities long suffering high employment remains ambiguous.

The story of the environmental-justice movement, since its inception, has been one of promising initiatives dogged by questions of scale and impact. Now that everyone seems to be jumping on the green bandwagon, from columnist Thomas Friedman to polluting-industry lobbyists touting "clean coal," environmental -- justice activists see their communities being potentially excluded once more.

For example, post-environmentalists Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, authors of Breakthrough: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility, argue that the environmental-justice movement has historically been too narrow in scope to really be effective, even for its own communities. Shellenberger and Nordhaus advocate a pro-growth, pro-prosperity, pro-capitalist approach to a green future -- an approach that minimizes community-focused work.

"You can understand their frustrations," says Julie Sze, director of the Environmental Justice Project at the University of California, Davis. "There is this really strong divide between [environmental justice] organizations and those who see community-based work as old-school."

Long before the green-development movement became trendy, environmental-justice groups have had a significant history with federal employment programs related to the environment, even before they were labeled as "green jobs." For example, in 1995, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences established the Minority Worker Training Program, which targeted minority youth for work in environmental fields and included a program specifically for remediation of polluted brownfield industrial sites. The first grants, according to the program's Web site, promoted "partnerships or sub-agreements ... with a particular focus on historically black colleges and universities, public schools and community-based organizations."

Grants went to trade unions such as the Laborers, for recruitment and training of workers into apprenticeships and jobs. And some went to historically black colleges and universities, such as Clark Atlanta University, currently host of the Environmental Justice Resource Center headed by Dr. Robert Bullard. Today, Bullard's center continues this work with the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, led by Dr. Beverly Wright at Dillard University in New Orleans.

Two specific goals were to train non-English speaking and limited-literacy workers and to train low-income individuals generally, working with environmental organizations. From 1996 to 2000, 1,647 students were trained in the Minority Worker Training program. Of these, 1,072, or 65 percent, were placed in jobs.

In 2001, the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance teamed with the New York District Council of Carpenters Labor Technical College for the training program. They recruited workers fresh out of prison, on parole, veterans, and the homeless to clean up brownfield sites. Part of the packaging was not just training for the work but also special life-management training. Twelve weeks of basic math, writing, and job-readiness classes were required before technical training occurred. "We need life-skill and job-readiness training before we even begin to talk about jobs," Bullard says, "especially with urban industries where there are large populations that have never had a full-time or steady job."

In the New York City pilot program, from 1995 to 2002, over 2,300 young minority adults were trained, and of those 65 percent were placed in jobs. In that year alone (September 2001 to August 2002) 334 had been trained with 222 landing gainful employment in construction, carpentry, environmental work, hazardous-waste cleanup, and asbestos abatement. These were the original green-jobs programs underwritten by federal funds. Approaches like these could make a big difference in communities of color, if the scale were adequate.

In 2003, environmental-justice leader Majora Carter, the widely praised founder of Sustainable South Bronx, started the Bronx Environmental Stewardship Training (BEST), which is lauded as one of the strongest local green-jobs initiatives in the country. BEST has graduated over 100 workers in green-job training and placed 80 percent in jobs, at a cost of between $7,000 and $8,000 per participant.

In Richmond, California, the community-based nonprofit Solar Richmond partnered with the city and another nonprofit called GRID Alternatives to put low-income residents to work installing solar-energy systems in homes of poor residents. The 10-week training program has placed 11 participants to date in jobs paying an average of $18.33 per hour with benefits.

Chicago's GreenCorps program, established in 1994, trains up to 50 people each year, many of them ex-offenders, for jobs in landscaping, gardening, weatherization, and recycling. Another Chicago program, Growing Home, was started in 1992 to place homeless and formerly incarcerated people into living-wage jobs in organic farming.

These are just a few examples, but they illustrate the problem with scale. As of January over 3.6 million jobs were lost in the recession, and green-jobs programs that serve hundreds or even thousands of people can't begin to make up the loss.

David Pellow, a sociology professor at the University of Minnesota who has written extensively about the promise of the environmental-justice movement, says that the U.S. has more than enough resources to take community-based environmental projects and give them broader reach. Also, he says, with all the work that needs to be done with affordable and safe housing, public transit, producing clean air and water, and building renewable-energy technology, plenty of jobs will be needed. "For the kinds of things these smaller outfits are already producing, there are enough basic similarities to expand these models very reasonably," Pellow says.

But with scale comes compromise. Consider the green-jobs guru Van Jones, a charismatic activist whose prominence produces ambivalent reactions from some in the environmental-justice community. Jones argues in his 2008 book, The Green Collar Economy, that millions of new green jobs can accommodate the displaced and those previously denied work because of lack of skills, discrimination, or a criminal record. Jones has worked toward winning jobs for youth and those with stained records through the Ella Baker Center, a community-advocacy nonprofit he formed in Oakland in 1996, and won prominent attention during its "Books not Bars" juvenile-justice campaign. In 2007, he started a crusade for green jobs by co-founding the "Green for All" nonprofit along with Majora Carter and other fellow activists.

But some in the environmental-justice community express concern that with Jones' increasing prominence has come a rhetoric that sounds increasingly like a market-driven, business-led approach. In The Green Collar Economy, Jones asserts that while the role of nonprofits and community-based solutions will be important, "only the business community has the requisite skills, experience, and capital to meet that need. On that score, neither government nor the nonprofit and voluntary sectors can compete, not even remotely." To Jones, the task of addressing climate change while retrofitting America and creating jobs is so daunting that only suitably incentivized and resourced businesses can produce the desired impact.

The incentives that Jones describes are outlays of public money. And environmental-justice leaders contend that with adequate funds, they could not only provide employment but also shepherd the green-jobs movement to communities whose urgent needs for clean environments and sustainable work are typically bypassed. "It is a shared effort," Carter says. "The impetus has to come from the grass roots."

Elizabeth Yeampierre, director of United Puerto Rican Organization of Sunset Park, says she was "stunned" by Jones' statement. "He has elevated the conversation -- I don't want to take that away -- but we have to learn how to work with each other respectfully." She is comfortable engaging with business leaders, she says, "so we can as a community redefine what the new economy means. [But] it's also a bad message to send to corporate America that they don't need to talk to us."

To be fair, Jones appears to be referring to "eco-entrepreneurs" who work and operate under fair, sustainable, green standards. In The Green Collar Economy, he also writes, "We cannot realistically proceed without a strong alliance between the best of the business world -- and everyone else." But to many in the environmental-justice movement, the record of business toward neglected minority communities suggests that coloring businesses green will not by itself transform the natural tendency of corporate elites to put profits over people.

"The idea that somehow renewable-energy companies will behave any different than any other existing energy companies seems unrealistic," says Kevin Doyle of Green Economy and co-chair of the New England Clean Energy Council Workforce Development Group. "It's going to be an uphill battle to get people who've had barriers to employment to suddenly get access, and this new moment only makes it nominally better." Doyle argues that it will take continued organizing to change private-sector behavior and that it would be naive to expect radical changes in the way that even eco-entrepreneurs do business.

"Business interests coming in to [low-income and minority] communities to capitalize on these new opportunities shouldn't surprise anyone," Pellow says, "but [the movement] has been around long enough to see this occur again and again. I do hope that this time they will be moved not to just throw up their hands but that people and private developers will listen to them. But if we're not willing to challenge the social structures that exist, then we will all be dead in the water."

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