On a dreary March morning, dozens of people crowded into the lobby of a former bank building in the Bronx now occupied by the Osborne Association, a nonprofit organization that helps people with criminal histories find jobs. They had come to watch Osborne launch a Green Career Center. The tablecloths were green. The goody bags were green. Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. took a three-foot pair of scissors to a green ribbon, but couldn’t cut it. Only after repeated chops and a few more sets of hands was he able to slice the symbolic band in two.
Since then, thirty-six people have graduated from the career center, which will train about 400 people with criminal records to work in a greener marketplace over the program’s eighteen months. The center is supported almost entirely by $2 million in federal stimulus funds through the Department of Justice, and it’s the latest addition to a borough-wide effort, led by nonprofits like Sustainable South Bronx and the borough president’s office, to green the local economy, much as President Obama has promised to do across the country. The local economic development corporation’s environment and energy initiative has funded the installation of thirteen green roofs and provides business loans of up to $100,000 for energy efficiency measures. And a number of other local organizations have green job training programs as well. The Bronx is as good a place as any to start these projects. It’s one of the poorest counties in the nation, with an unemployment rate of nearly 14 percent. The borough disproportionately bears the environmental burden of supporting a city of 8 million people, with a high concentration of waste transfer stations, heavy industry, crisscrossing highways and the truck traffic that follows.
Both in the Bronx and around the country, Obama’s campaign promise to create millions of green jobs has collided with the reality of the recession. Some of the stimulus package that was meant to create green jobs—the Recovery Act slated more than $70 billion for renewable energy, transportation and energy efficiency—is taking longer than expected to actually spend, in part because cash-strapped states with furloughed workers have been unable to implement many grants. Out of nearly $5 billion allocated to fund weatherizing low-income people’s homes, for instance, less than 8 percent had been spent by mid-February.
“We’ve all experienced a bit of hurry up and wait with green jobs,” said Jessica Rooks, director of the Green Career Center. “But there are also people looking to figure out ways to make themselves more marketable and grow their businesses and green is one of those ways.”
Standing with the borough president that day were a host of examples. There was a representative from a local union devoted to weatherization and the owner of a company that manufactures green cleaning supplies and a solar-powered trashcan with a built-in compactor. There was Omar Freilla, who runs an organization that helps start environmentally friendly, worker-owned businesses. Freilla started Green Worker Cooperatives seven years ago. Before that, he worked with Sustainable South Bronx, an organization that runs its own green jobs training programs. “We like to think that we played a role in the fact that green-collar jobs is an established concept now,” he said of the Bronx movement. “Now people are seeing it as job opportunities and a way out of poverty.”