Phyllis Evans never gave much thought to the national debate over green jobs. As a mother of two, former substitute teacher and homeowner in Dorchester, Massachusetts, Evans was active with New England United for Justice, which is best known for organizing around housing and economic justice. But when her group joined the Green Justice Coalition and began partnering with the Boston Climate Action Network, she suddenly found herself educating members of her community on CO2 emissions, energy efficiency and low-carbon diets. These concepts had been foreign to her, yet Evans was now giving workshops on them to other low- and moderate-income residents. "We teach them how to weatherize their homes, caulk windows and different things they can do to cut down on CO2 emissions," she explains. "And we tell them different ways it will cut down on their utility bills."
While there is much discussion of the green economy nationally, few people truly understand what the buzzwords mean, and members of the Green Justice Coalition are among the very small number who are working to create energy-conscious neighborhoods in the heart of cities, inhabited by working people and people of color. "Our community is really toxic," Evans says. "We have the highest rates of a lot of illnesses related to the environment, so it’s necessary for us to be active. Being an African-American woman myself, I think I need to be part of the solution."
Evans is not alone in her beliefs, and the Green Justice Coalition has gone far beyond teaching people how to save energy—to actually shaping public policy in Massachusetts. In the process, it has created a model to connect the struggle for environmental justice with the fight for living-wage jobs, helping to lay the groundwork for a new generation of community-labor coalitions across the country. Largely below the radar, a growing number of activists are scoring important victories at the regional level through similar tactics, combining serious coalition building, astute policy research and aggressive political action, and paving the way for a new New Deal in America.
In October 2009, the Green Justice Coalition scored an important victory by getting environmental justice language inserted into Massachusetts’s new, $1.4 billion energy efficiency plan, one of the first comprehensive plans in the nation. The plan takes steps to significantly reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. But compared to similar initiatives in other states, the provisions pushed by activists in Massachusetts will ensure that the plan has a far more direct impact on residents’ lives. There will be a financing plan to make energy-saving home improvements more affordable. Many of the 23,300 jobs to be generated by the plan will go to contractors who pay decent wages and meet "high road" employment standards. Finally, four pilot programs across the state will test a radically new outreach model by going door to door and mobilizing low- and moderate-income families in building greener neighborhoods.
These innovations already have national significance. The Obama administration’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act includes more than $30 billion for green construction—and this one-time stimulus is just a fraction of the money that state and federal agencies will spend to increase energy efficiency and reduce carbon consumption in the coming years. For social movements, such investments are only the beginning; their real mission will be to seize the opportunities made available in order to build campaigns with a series of escalating demands. In Boston, activists are committed to using the state program to score a triple win: delivering a blow to global warming, creating jobs needed to fuel economic recovery and addressing the exclusion of racially and economically marginalized communities from green development. The Green Justice Coalition has built momentum around each of these goals.