Fighting Poverty With a Green Economy
This was originally published by WireTap magazine.
October 8, 2008
In the past two weeks, a lot has happened on the green jobs front. While Congress continues to battle over federal tax credits for renewable energy, green economy workers and activists came together for a National Day of Action.
In a similar rallying cry, youth organizers, representing over 1.5 million youths from 20 national organizations, declared green jobs among their top eight issues in the Youth Agenda launched last week. Amidst this flurry of activity, Emily Kirsch continues her work to bring green jobs to marginalized Oakland, Calif. residents. It's what Kirsch does every day as the Bay Area organizer for the Ella Baker Center's Green-Collar Jobs Campaign.
The Center is a human rights group working with local communities for economic and social justice. Its Green-Collar Jobs Campaign is unique because it recognizes that by working to reduce pollution and dependence on fossil fuels, it's also possible to reduce poverty. As Kirsch points out, in these times of economic hardship, green job creation is exactly what Americans from all backgrounds need. Kirsch spoke with WireTap about how the Green-Collar Jobs Campaign helps Oakland meet several goals in one fell swoop.
WireTap: Explain your involvement with the Ella Baker Center's Green-Collar Jobs Campaign.
: I was hired four months ago as the Bay Area organizer for the Green-Collar Jobs Campaign. The campaign works to create opportunities for people with barriers to employment--folks who may have a criminal background, people who have been out of the labor market for a while or people who haven't had an opportunity to go to college.
What kind of work are you doing to provide green jobs and job training to those marginalized communities?
In our work, we have pulled together some partners here in Oakland to create a training program called the Oakland Green Jobs Corps. The goal of that program is the same as ours: to create opportunities and provide training for low-income people, people of color and people with barriers to employment. They provide the training for people to get jobs in the green economy, teaching basic skills like communication, time management and team-work. The second phase of the training is more of a hands-on component. People learn about the various tools and techniques. [For example,] they learning about different components of solar panels or energy construction. The final part of the program is paid, on-the-job training with businesses here in the Bay Area. We have pulled together a group of businesses on a council called the Oakland Green Employer Council. All of these businesses participate in the program.
How do you and your colleagues work to take down some of the barriers to employment you've mentioned? Is this more difficult when talking about green jobs?
We work on bringing together labor unions, green businesses, environmental and social justice organizations who all have the same goal of creating opportunities through the green economy. I think for people just coming out of incarceration, or people with other barriers to employment, it's extremely difficult to find your way into a living-wage position. But, I think with the Oakland Green Jobs Corps, which is funded by the city of Oakland, people [are] coming together for the same cause. It makes it possible for people traditionally locked out of [job] opportunities to find a place.
When we talk about green jobs, there's frequently confusion about whether we mean construction, manufacturing, engineering or research and development jobs. Does your program focus on skilled jobs, unskilled jobs or both?
We are looking to prepare people for entry-level positions in green jobs. The reason why green businesses are such a great place to start is because they do provide on-the-job training. Once people have basic skills, they have room for upward mobility. You don't have to start at a manual labor position, but we do consider green-collar jobs to be manual labor jobs because, with training, it is easier to get into them.
What kind of awareness is there about green jobs among low-income folks and communities of color? Are people starting to talk more about a "green economy"?
About two years ago, I did on-the-ground research over in West Oakland, talking to youth and young adults about green-collar job opportunities. One of the questions was, "Have you heard of green-collar jobs?" At that time, the answer was 100 percent, "No." I think if I were to go out to the same places and ask folks the same question [it would be different]. I think interest is growing. With organizations like the Ella Baker Center, who are doing events and collaborating with social sector groups [to spread awareness], the momentum, excitement and need for these jobs is becoming apparent in all communities.
The Green-Collar Jobs Campaign makes a special effort to target young people from poor neighborhoods. How does your program tackle some of the problems of poverty faced by young adults?
[The campaign also has an impact on] the Ella Baker Center's Silence the Violence Campaign, [which works toward urban peace]. When youth and young adults have the opportunity to make $15 an hour [doing something] good for their community and the environment, they're most likely going to choose that option.
Is there a particular effort in the green jobs movement to involve people of color? How effective has that effort been?
With our work and a lot of the work of our allies in the environmental justice movement, there has definitely been an effort to focus on communities of color. It looks like it has been effective [in getting] them involved and trained so they have the skills they need to move into a green career. I think there's a great foundation there, but I think there's a lot that still needs to be done to make sure people of color are the first people trained and the first people hired.
You mentioned that the Green-Collar Jobs Campaign is responding to environmental justice concerns. Can you expand on that a little bit?
As people are introduced to the solutions, whether it's green construction or energy efficiency or solar power, we can start to move away from those polluting industries of fossil fuels and oil that have predominantly been polluting in communities of color.
How can communities of color use the opportunities created by the green movement to drive enterprises owned by people of color?
One thing that we hope to see as a result of the green jobs movement is a revitalization of people-of-color-owned businesses. For the folks that go through the training programs and get jobs in green businesses, we're hoping they'll be able to take their skills and start their own businesses and then hire from their communities. [Then], they can take ownership over the green jobs movement.
It seems there are a number of green job programs in the Bay Area targeting marginalized populations. Is California leading the way in this effort or is this sort of work being done all over the country?
I would say that California is a leader in the green jobs movement. But, as oil prices continue to rise, and as the economy continues to decline, I think we're really seeing initiatives from the local, state and federal levels. Folks are really seeing the need for these kinds of programs across the country.
Speaking of federal incentives, the federal tax credits for renewable energy sources could expire this year if Congress doesn't take action this week. How will that affect existing green jobs and green businesses?
We're paying close attention to what's happening in Congress around the tax credits. We're really hoping they will be renewed because, for the businesses we work with--and all renewable energy businesses out there--the tax credits are extremely essential to their work. We're hoping they will be renewed because we think it will improve opportunities for the green industry and also provide job training and opportunities. It's a boom or bust market, [contingent] on whether incentives exist.
From our perspective, if the credits were not renewed, we would advise people to continue to get training in solar because it's [a skill that] will be needed in the future, but we would also advise people to be trained in energy efficiency and green construction, where the job openings are.
Any last word on the green jobs movement?
I have a lot of hope for it. I have a lot of faith in Oakland--in everybody from the grassroots community, all the way up to policymakers. I think it's something we can all unite behind. We have to find a way to address poverty and pollution at the same time and I think that the Green-Collar Jobs Campaign, and the green jobs movement as a whole, has the potential to do that and already is doing that on the ground.
For more on green jobs:
Van Jones, co-founder of Green for All, recently published, The Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems.
To get involved in the Green Jobs Now campaign, visit GreenJobsNow.org.
Suemedha Sood is a 2007 fellow in the Academy for Alternative Journalism at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. The former assistant editor at the Center for American Progress, she is a frequent contributor to WireTap.