In the fall of 2004, then-college student Julian Mocine-McQueen was outraged that the prosperous city of San Francisco was doing little to prevent or talk about the high rate of homicides among young African-American and Latino men. So he started organizing young people around violence prevention programs through the League of Young Voters, a national voter engagement organization that also supports community organizers working with low-income youth. He had no idea that in a few years he would move from violence prevention to environmental justice. Mocine-McQueen, 28, is now a field organizer with Green For All, a national advocacy organization dedicated to supporting local activists in their efforts to improve their neighborhoods through energy conservation and job-creation initiatives. “Green jobs allowed me to address the root causes of violence–no jobs, no money,” he explains.
On February 4 Mocine-McQueen is heading to Good Jobs, Green Jobs–a conference in Washington, DC, where more than 1,000 labor leaders will learn tactics on how to press the government to expand markets for green jobs. He will hold sessions that emphasize building a more inclusive economy–one that creates wealth-building opportunities for historically neglected, low-income communities of color. He is encouraged to see the growing numbers of supportive labor groups across the country who recognize the need to diversify their ranks.
Then, from February 27 to March 2, Mocine-McQueen will attend Power Shift 2009, a gathering of more than 10,000 young environmental activists, also in Washington, put together by the Energy Action Coalition (EAC) in partnership with fifty of its membership organizations, including Green For All. “As future inheritors of this planet, young people get the urgency of this problem,” says Jessy Tolkan, EAC’s executive director. In 2007 Power Shift–part political rally, part concert, part K Street-style lobbying day–brought more than 6,000 young people to Washington. The event helped firmly plant the concept of green jobs within the organizing landscape of young climate change activists. “That message of green jobs is really sticking with young people, because it is so solutions-oriented,” Tolkan explains. A proof of its growing appeal: EAC’s e-mail list has grown from 10,000 to 500,000 since 2007.
But the impact of the student green jobs movement should also be measured in the powerful change it has brought to lives and communities. Take Pittsburgh native Chester Thrower III. The first time he heard of “green jobs” was a year ago. He Googled the term and found videos of the idea’s fiercest preacher, Green For All founder Van Jones. It wasn’t the first time Thrower heard outsiders promising jobs for Pittsburgh’s predominantly African-American neighborhoods, where the unemployment rate for males has been among the highest in the nation for decades. But this time it felt different. Jones struck a chord within him. Jones told Thrower that he could be an entrepreneur, that he could run his own business someday.
Thrower was inspired. He could think of only four people who own small businesses in the Manchester neighborhood of Pittsburgh where he grew up. The rest worked primarily in service industries, making minimum wage. His friend Khari Mosley from the League of Young Voters helped him enroll in the Green For All Academy late last year so he could hear Jones speak in person. There, Jones laid out some potential paths for Thrower’s dream of becoming his own boss. What really moved Thrower to action was the realization that with this business, he would also have the power to give something back to his neighborhood. He could give unemployed young people on Pittsburgh’s street corners good jobs retrofitting old, polluted buildings and installing solar panels. “That enlightened me and got me interested in the solar panels,” Thrower recalls. “I figure the sun is always going to be here, and I could learn to harness that somehow.”
In February Thrower will be taking a ten-week class on solar panel installation that will cost him only $350, including books–much less than a vocational certificate or college degree. The class will be taught by the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 95 in Pittsburgh. Thrower plans to work with the League of Young Voters to create more classes like these targeted at young people in urban, working-class neighborhoods of Pittsburgh.
Thrower sees green jobs as the best way to stop drug-related violence in Pittsburgh. For more than a year, he worked as a community organizer in Manchester, and almost every young person he approached asked him, “Can you get me a job?” Thrower felt powerless as he watched young people sell drugs to help their parents pay their bills.
Nationally, there are about 1.7 million low-income youths (16 to 24) who were out of school and out of work in 2005, according to a report by the Center for American Progress. Many of them live in areas of concentrated poverty and are often striving for precious few opportunities that the corporate media glorify–rap stars, professional athletes. When Thrower tells young people in Manchester about green jobs, “it goes in one ear and out the other.” Despite this, he is confident that once he starts to put solar panels up in his neighborhood, he’ll become a tangible new role model young people will want to emulate.
The trouble is: there are no solar installation jobs in Manchester for Thrower right now. That’s why he is working with the League of Young Voters to lobby for job-training support and energy efficiency grants from the city, state and federal government that will help create the demand for these newly trained workers. “The time is now,” Thrower says, raising his voice. “If low-income people are not aware and are not exposed to these opportunities right now, two, three years later it may be too late. We may get shut out of the process again.”
While local leaders like Thrower and Mocine-McQueen work to build awareness about green jobs block by block, and groups like Green For All build alliances between traditional blue-collar workers and lower-income communities of color, EAC adds a powerful punch to this cause from the nation’s campuses. The result is the largest and most diverse youth and student movement in the country. Young voters were a key constituency in the election of this country’s first African-American president, and thousands of Power Shift 2009 activists will let Congress know that this powerful voting bloc expects not only substantive investments in the transition to a green economy but also explicit provisions for green job growth for unemployed youth.
Youth organizers, who work on the margins of American society to eliminate racism and poverty through issues like prison and public school reforms, haven’t had so much reason for hope in a long time. The growing popularity of energy conservation and green jobs among people of all ages and backgrounds, the openness among some moderate Republicans to a green economy as a pathway to more entrepreneurship and innovation, and the urgent need to come up with an economic recovery plan present the potential for a perfect political storm. This unprecedented coalition, standing at a historic crossroads, might just create enough of a critical mass to push through something that finally benefits working-class youth in communities like Manchester.