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.

The people here live in one of the nation’s dirtiest cities–even the power plant, which belongs to the city’s medical school, has faced criminal pollution charges. Essex County, home to Newark, is ranked twenty-seventh in the nation on a list of counties with the poorest air quality, and some neighborhoods contain more than 100 toxic sites. This dire situation occurred in large part because polluting industries are the core of Newark’s job base. An estimated 150,000 jobs are connected to the port, and one in three workers is employed in transportation, utilities, manufacturing or construction.

Booker says that when all sectors–the port, recreation, even policing–are looked at from a green perspective, “suddenly, it expands our imagination.” Fixing the ecological problems becomes an economic opportunity.

Newark is still very much in the imagining stage–it has only rolled out a handful of pilot projects, in partnership with local businesses, labor unions and community organizations. Newark’s success in bringing its green vision to life will be measured largely by whether it can provide a pathway out of poverty for someone like Perry McKinney. McKinney is 48 and has a ninth grade education. He has been in state prison three times for crimes including cocaine possession and burglary. After he got out of prison for the last time, in 2000, he finally found a job, doing maintenance work. This brought some brief economic security for the family he supports, which includes his wife, seven children, four foster children and a grandchild, even enabling them to buy a house. But he lost the house and the job when he fell back into his drug habit in 2005. Now his family gets by on food stamps, foster care payments and other public support.

McKinney is one of twenty-five workers who will be part of a six-week Green Jobs Construction Training Initiative launched in January by the City of Newark, the Garden State Alliance for a New Economy and the Laborers International Union’s eastern region organizing fund. After being trained in green construction skills, trainees will work on thirty homes belonging to elderly residents on a waiting list for a home-improvement grant program. Organizers hope participants will graduate into jobs doing weatherization; public weatherization dollars that could be harnessed to create local jobs are underutilized or are going to contractors who don’t employ city residents. Meanwhile, the Laborers are organizing a local for residential construction workers to ensure that jobs created in this sector will pay a living wage.

Another program in the works, to be overseen by the Greater Newark Conservancy, will be funded by city dollars for prisoner re-entry programs. Conservancy executive director Robin Dougherty explains that in its first year, the program will give 128 ex-offenders their first jobs after returning to the community, working with the conservancy for roughly eight weeks before being placed in permanent jobs. As workers clean up the city’s many trash-strewn lots, they will learn basic landscaping skills, light construction and urban farming. “They’re not necessarily all going to get green jobs,” Dougherty cautions, but he says the basic skills they learn will help them get jobs in other sectors.

Newark is incubating so many projects–one trains thirty young people to install solar panels and leads to union apprenticeships; another is an internship that trains a class of sixty in green construction–that even the mayor’s office can’t keep track of them all. But it is unclear how programs reaching dozens of workers can create jobs for the city’s 14,000 unemployed. It also remains to be seen whether private sector employers will hire workers trained on these short-term, public sector projects. So far, the city is largely creating demand for green workers by revamping its operations. The public entity with the greatest potential to create green jobs, the port, is controlled by the New York and New Jersey Port Authority, which the New Jersey Environmental Federation says has not been “forward thinking” about greening its operations. (“Right now the port is killing us,” Thompson-Gaddy says in frustration.)

Over in Trenton, watching his city’s experiments with green jobs, acting director of economic development Jerome Harris says, “I think there’s more noise than there is light.” Though the city’s initiatives include a $46 million carbon abatement project in partnership with the local power utility, he is wary of estimating how many jobs it will create. “People are talking green jobs, but we’re not able to effectively project how many and when,” he says. “I don’t think we know enough about those moving parts yet.”

Creating jobs–green or otherwise–in cities like Newark and Trenton is largely a question of resources, says Alan Berube, research director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. Right now, the greatest potential for new resources to devote to such projects lies in the stimulus package being hammered out in Washington. Newark is especially eager to see President Obama follow through on a pledge to create a national program to weatherize a million homes each year.

The Center for American Progress, part of a national partnership led by the Apollo Alliance, which oversaw Newark’s recent Green Future Summit, estimates that 57,228 jobs can be created in New Jersey by giving the state $3.2 billion of a proposed national Green Economic Recovery program. This would include $1.3 billion in building retrofits.

Even without an infusion of federal dollars, says Thompson-Gaddy, Newark is seeing a “snowball effect where everybody is really engaging in the green economy and creating green jobs.” She hopes Newark’s pilot programs will soon be training 500 workers each year who will graduate not only into permanent jobs but will become entrepreneurs, starting small businesses installing green technology and distributing the equipment and raw materials these businesses use.

Green construction trainee Perry McKinney is optimistic, too. “I just love to be a part of something positive for me, wherever my God may be taking me,” he says.

“It gave me hope.”