Kim Thompson-Gaddy’s three children have asthma, and her godson has irreversible lead poisoning. Sadly, many families face these illnesses in her city, Newark, New Jersey, home to one of the Northeast’s largest incinerators and the nation’s third-busiest port. With her compelling story and her experience as staff to three city council members in the 1980s and ’90s, it is hard to imagine why she has faced an uphill battle in making the city’s environmental problems a top priority for the state’s environmental organizations and its urban politicians. But her frustration led her to confront the president of the New Jersey Environmental Federation at its first meeting nine years ago: “How can you begin to address our issues if you don’t have anyone who looks like us and lives in our community?” she asked. The group took her point and hired her. But when she met with Ronald Rice, her state senator and chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, he laughed her out of the room. “I can’t believe you left municipal government to become a tree-hugger!” she remembers him exclaiming.
Today, Thompson-Gaddy’s work is paying off. Newark, along with the capital, Trenton, is at the forefront of a new wave of urban environmentalism fueled by the promise of green jobs–the approach to economic recovery favored by America’s first urban president in more than a century. Newark Mayor Cory Booker will soon announce that Thompson-Gaddy will chair a new environmental commission, and she headed the economic development working group of a planning process, announced at the 2007 Clinton Global Initiative, to make Newark a model green city. Trenton Mayor Douglas Palmer convened his own green steering committee fourteen months ago and used his position as president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors to place global warming atop the urban agenda. Even the once-derisive Rice has begun to come around and has co-sponsored an environmental bill.
This change was made possible, explains Booker, by the realization that environmentalism is “not about saving something far away like penguins or whales; it’s about creating jobs and creating wealth and hope in cities.” It also turns some of the cities’ greatest liabilities into opportunities. “Our state has a lot of challenges,” Booker says. “Urban mayors not only want to avoid facing the consequences of not engaging the green movement. They also see the opportunities of creating a green economy.”
These challenges are quantified by heartbreaking numbers, which reveal why solving the economic and ecological crises were long seen as mutually exclusive objectives. In Newark, whose residents are 54 percent black and 32 percent Latino, 30 percent of adults have less than a high school education. (Only 12 percent have post-high school degrees.) Even before the current recession, unemployment hovered above 10 percent, almost twice the state average, and one in six adults has a criminal record, which makes it even harder to find work. A third of Newark’s children live in poverty.