Thanks to globalization, many blue-collar manufacturing jobs have packed up and left the country. Workers in developing countries will do the same jobs, but for far less money. And costs for employers are lower all round. For American workers, however, this exodus has left a huge void where traditional living wage jobs used to be. Now a new environmental justice movement says the future security of working class families will depend on "green collar" jobs.
"The chief moral obligation of the 21st Century is to build a green economy that is strong enough to lift people out of poverty," says Van Jones, a civil rights activist and founder of Green For All, a nonprofit that advocates for job training, employment opportunities and green development.
"Those communities that were locked out of the last century's pollution-based economy must be locked into the new, clean and renewable economy. … Our youth need green-collar jobs, not jails."
Jones, a Yale educated lawyer, started out advocating for minority youth caught up in the criminal justice system in Oakland, Calif. He founded the Ella Baker Center in 1996, a nonprofit whose motto is "Working for justice in the system, opportunity in our cities, and peace on our streets." Now, along with Majora Carter, executive director of the New York-based nonprofit Sustainable Bronx, Jones is leading a national effort to bring economic prosperity to low-income and minority communities.
If their vision materializes, people of color will soon be earning living wages and saving the planet at the same time.
Last month the U.S. Congress passed the "Energy Independence and Security Act," which included a bill that promises to create "green pathways out of poverty" for poor people and people of color. If authorized, the legislation would direct $125 million every year into efforts to train and prepare working people to benefit from the rapidly growing "green economy."
According to House speaker Nancy Pelosi, this legislation alone could create three million jobs over the next 10 years.
Too bad then that the funding may never materialize, since President Bush has vowed to veto the bill—along with the entire energy package. Nevertheless, advocates say individual states and cities can do a lot to create well-paying jobs that benefit working people in low-income urban communities.
Why is the green economy so important? As cities and states across the United States face up to the challenges of global warming and dwindling energy resources, they will be looking at solutions such as: energy-proofing homes and offices; adding more renewable energy sources such as solar panels, wind and wave power; improving public transit; recycling waste and many other fixes.
Workers with skills and experience in these areas will be in demand. And cities with a skilled "green" workforce will attract firms who need those workers.
"That's to me what is most exciting," says TriMet chief, Fred Hansen. "Being able to make sustainability an economic force – not just an environmental force, but an economic force in our community."
In Oakland and New York, these efforts already are underway. The City of Oakland has allocated $250,000 to fund the Oakland Green Jobs Corps, a job-training program that will work with urban youth, helping them develop highly marketable skills in areas such as renewable energy and energy efficiency projects. In New York, the Bronx Environmental Stewardship program is training area residents – many of them previously jobless – in everything from landscaping and green-roof installation to stormwater and brownfield site cleanup.
These projects have come about because of activists such as Van Jones and Majora Carter.
"In 2001, I founded Sustainable South Bronx — not as a moral crusade, but as an economic-development group that was about planning our future, not just reacting to environmental blight," Carter told Grist online magazine. "I wanted to play offense, not defense. I wanted to give our community permission to dream, to plan for healthy air, healthy jobs, healthy children and safe streets."
Closer to home, opportunities for people of color to benefit from the "clean and green" economy have been less obvious. Portland, with its reputation as the greenest city in the nation, has made plenty of noise about wanting to attract young "cultural creatives" to the city, but much less about building an environmentally smart workforce out of the residents this creative class is displacing.
Lack of diversity is most obvious at the higher levels of the emerging green economy – where planners, scientists, inventors and entrepreneurs are laying the groundwork for these new jobs. Traditionally bright young people of color interested in contributing to their communities have chosen to enter law, medicine, politics or education – not ecology, solar power technology or any of the many other specialist study areas that are driving the green economy.
Take Portland State University, for example. Recognized as one of the top places in the country to study cities and community development, PSU is an ideal jumping off point for young people who want to take leadership roles, says Karen L. Gibson, an associate professor in the department of Urban Studies and Planning.
"Portland is known as the best planning place in the nation," she said. "Yet how many Black people are there in this department? Very few. And how many Black people in community development? Very few."
Gibson wants to see programs in schools that inspire students to pursue careers in planning and community development as well as in other growing fields.
Yet despite the apparent absence of minority leadership, Portland already may be well positioned to ensure people of all backgrounds can profit from opportunities in the emerging green economy. That's due to the efforts of key leaders in the city council, TriMet, Portland Community College and the Oregon branch of the National Association of Minority Contractors.
Coming Next Week: Green Jobs in Portland