By Maritza Martinez
What if you could not only vote for who your representatives are, but also how they legislate? In Brazil and the United Kingdom, you can. And the idea is catching on in cities across the U.S.—including New York, Chicago, and Buffalo. These cities are beginning to incorporate participatory budgeting into some aspects of city management. Participatory budgeting allows community members to make real decisions about how money is spent in their city. In participatory budgeting, residents identify spending priorities, develop specific spending proposals, vote on which proposals to fund, and work with the city to implement the top proposals.
The result? A chance to feed two birds with one seed—by making sure that funds generated by cracking down on polluters help create healthier, more vibrant communities. Take a look at Buffalo, New York, where the Clean Air Coalition of Western New York recently led the charge for accountability by polluters Tonawanda Coke Corporation—and won. Tonawanda Coke was found guilty of violating federal clean air regulations. Its environmental manager was also found guilty of hiding plant deficiencies from U.S. regulators. Part of the settlement from these cases—up to $50 million—could be allotted for projects designed to improve life for local residents.
Green For All Fellow Natasha Soto, an organizer with the Clean Air Coalition, helped initiate a participatory budgeting process to decide how to use the funds from the fines to improve the community that was affected by the company’s violations. After assemblies, hundreds of calls, and establishment of polling places throughout the area, nearly 600 residents voted for the projects they thought were most important.
The project that received the most votes would work with manufacturers to reduce toxic chemicals use and improve energy and water efficiency. Other top projects include the development of a health institute, buying and developing land for energy generation, growing a tree farm, and conducting a health study on the effects of air pollution on the community.
A judge will now decide the fine the company will have to pay. A portion of the fine could be allocated to fund health-related community-led projects. The complete list of projects was sent to the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Justice. The Clean Air Coalition and its members delivered a strong message that they want healthier communities—and they have great ideas on how to make that happen.
Tim Carryer has always loved the outdoors—he’s spent time traveling in Alaska, and scuba diving off the coast of Massachusetts. The pollution and environmental degradation he saw while spending time in nature always disturbed him. But he never really thought of himself as an environmental advocate, until recently.
Carryer had worked for years as a high-end remodeler. He saw first hand how much waste occurred in the industry, and wondered if he could do something about it. Around that time, Pennsylvania rolled out its statewide workforce training program, focused on weatherization and energy efficiency. Though the program was nationally recognized, those who underwent the program faced one issue: there was no demand for workers with this skill set, leaving many out of work.
Carryer, a born entrepreneur, saw an opportunity. He started his own company, Carryer Construction, specializing in deep efficiency upgrades taking a whole-house approach. He also founded Green Over Green, a hub for home energy performance businesses and professionals. In 2010, he set up Diagnostic Energy Auditors of Western Pennsylvania (DEAWP), which connects members with training as well as industry and community opportunities. The goal is to build a regional network of businesses and organizations in the home performance industry to create business collaborations and facilitate long-term success.
Despite his work with these important groups, Carryer began to feel increasingly concerned that the industry was not fulfilling the promise of green jobs. Even with his efforts, no amount of training will create green jobs without market demand – the industry had a marketing challenge. In an effort to change that, he took part in a roundtable that brought together dozens of stakeholders in the energy efficiency sector, including nonprofits, policymakers, and funders, with the goal of identifying ways to cultivate demand and create real jobs.
This was where Carryer met Andrew Butcher, co-founder and CEO of GTECH Strategies (Growth Through Energy and Community Health). He realized that he and Butcher shared the same goal, but Butcher’s vision was even broader than his own. Butcher raised money for a marketing program based on community outreach and was building a network within each community, playing matchmaker by connecting neighborhood to available resources that addressed their needs.
Carryer recognized the power of GTECH’s mission and strategy. When he heard they were looking for an Energy Director, he jumped at the opportunity. Carryer, 66, now spends his time working to fight pollution and spur the green economy in Pittsburgh.
As Energy Director for GTECH, he is leading the Reenergize Pittsburgh initiative. The effort taps into GTECH’s strong network of small businesses, nonprofits, utilities and weatherization contractors to identify and address neighborhood energy needs. The goal is to create green job opportunities for local workers while bringing energy, health and cost benefits to Pittsburgh residents.
The organization works from the ground up, identifying and recruiting energy ambassadors from sixteen Pittsburgh neighborhoods to help identify what each community needs. GTECH works with churches and community organizations to build demand for and deliver energy efficiency. Then GTECH draws on its coalition members of building analysts, weatherization experts, and utilities to implement energy-saving measures in single-family homes. The initiative aims to slash carbon pollution in Pittsburgh by 200 metric tons during its first-year pilot, and grow into a long-term program. Carryer is aiming to drop neighborhood energy use by at least 20 percent and, if possible, up to 40 percent.
But it’s not just an environmental initiative. The Alleghany County Health Department has shown interest in the health benefits of energy efficiency upgrades, which can help decrease asthma triggers such as moisture, dust, and drafts.
Today, his favorite part about working with GTECH Strategies is building a strong network through fixing buildings and joining training programs that focus not just on weatherization, but on marketing energy efficiency. His hope is for the network to perform high-quality work that builds trust and that reaches at least one-third of Pittsburgh’s homes.
He believes Pittsburgh should serve as a model for other cities in spurring energy efficiency. The region is already ahead of the game, he says, because it has transitioned from a jobless coal town to inclusive city with booming economic development. His vision of Pittsburgh is a city with green career ladders for disadvantaged residents, a thriving energy efficiency sector, and healthy, prosperous communities. And with GTECH, he’s working to create it—one neighborhood at a time.
Written by: Maritessa Bravo Ares
Rain or shine, Jennifer McPike moves swiftly from door to door with a clipboard in hand in some of San Francisco’s underserved and neglected neighborhoods. As an Environment Now Crew Leader, she and her team are on a mission. Their goal is to reach out to as many San Francisco residents as they can to teach them about the city’s Zero Waste Campaign, an effort to reduce waste heading to landfills while increasing access to recycling and composting. Jennifer’s job is more than just making sure she and her crew target every home on her list. It’s about transforming a community – one home, one business, and one person at a time.
A program of the San Francisco Department of the Environment, Environment Now is an innovative green jobs training program that provides residents with leadership development and career pathways. The program helps participants develop skills in communication, computer literacy, and customer service in order to be effective environmental advocates and peer educators. Using their new skills, the participants conduct environmental outreach activities, making contact with homes and businesses throughout the city. They educate residents and business owners on a variety of topics including energy efficiency, zero waste, recycling, toxics reduction and food security. The effort is a win on many levels. Residents are empowered to be better stewards of their environment. Businesses can also save money by changing their behaviors—and it all adds up to get the city closer to achieving its environmental goals.
Jennifer has been working with Environment Now since December 2009. In May 2012 she began her new role as crew leader, where she trains and coaches crew members on how to conduct door-to-door outreach, communicate with business owners, and compile data. She and her crew teach residents how to compost and recycle, help monitor bins, and answer any questions the residents or small business owners may have. You can also see Jennifer and her crew at various community events, where they highlight the programs and services the Department of the Environment has to offer. She says her favorite part of the job is helping the community. One success came recently, when she helped the owner of an auto body shop take steps to drastically cut his business’s waste, increase recycling, and use a smaller garbage can. These changes alone are saving the business owner a couple hundred dollars each month on his garbage bill.
Like Jennifer, who has lived in San Francisco for more than 25 years, many Environment Now program participants come from or have deep ties to some of the city’s most underserved areas. Because of their familiarity with these neighborhoods, they are uniquely positioned to make a difference with traditionally hard-to-reach audiences and boost community participation in the city’s environmental initiatives. But changing someone’s behavior – whether it’s the way people sort their recycling or how they conserve energy – isn’t always easy. Jennifer seems to have a magic touch. What’s the secret to her success? “People just want to be heard. Listening to someone also helps open the door for you to share your story. It’s the personal connection that changes mindsets,” she explains.
Indeed, it’s that personal connection that has helped the program reach a wide audience. Collectively, participants have reached over 75,000 residents and businesses with the city’s environmental initiatives, making San Francisco a better place to live and our environment a whole lot healthier. More than 1,100 businesses have taken advantage of free business audits in energy efficiency and lighting offered by the program. Additionally, in the past year, the program has helped 2,000 businesses and 1,300 apartment buildings with their composting and recycling needs.
Beyond the homes reached or businesses helped, there are other intangible ways in which the Environment Now program has been a success. For some of the crew members, shifting to the environmental field was a completely new area. With the help of the program coordinators, Jennifer and other team members became experts on the city’s initiatives, developed the skills needed to communicate with the public and craft messaging that resonates with different audiences. The confidence to connect and speak with anyone and everyone is now a part of who she is. The program has also given people an opportunity to pursue meaningful work.
“I like working here because it gives me a sense that I’m doing something with myself. Environment Now has given me a chance to take part in working and being included back in my community and talking to my neighbors and peers about how to keep and achieve a sustainable, healthy and safe environment for everyone. While doing that it has given me structure and great office skills that I can take to another job”
–Ebony Reid, an Environment Now program participant.
The Environment Now team is made up of San Franciscans from a wide range of backgrounds and spoken languages, with a variety of work and life experiences, all sharing a passion for protecting the environment. Since 2009, almost 65 people have completed the two-year program equipped with knowledge and transferrable skills they can use throughout their lives.
For more information on the Environment Now program, please visit the San Francisco Department of the Environment webpage at www.sfenvironment.org.
By Karen Monahan, Green For All Fellow and Environmental Justice Organizer at Sierra Club
Environmental Justice issues are linked to many other injustices. Polluting industries are more likely to be located in communities of color and low-income communities. Folks who are impacted by these pollution sites often suffer from many illnesses, including asthma. Asthma is the number one reason students miss school. Link that to test scores and drop out rates. Many of these same folks do not have healthcare. Folks still have to eat and have shelter regardless of whether or not they have an education. When one doesn’t have the proper training or education to make a living wage, it leads to low-income jobs (if they are available), social services (which are being cut) or maybe a life of crime, which can lead to incarceration or even death. Environmental Justice is one way to tackle a variety of injustice issues.
For far too long we have been working on tackling pollution plants case-by-case, permit-by-permit. We are working with the Minnesota Pollution Control (MPCA) to try to remedy this problem, by addressing the big picture pollution issues that affect Minneapolis. We are working toward relationship building with the MPCA and the community. We are asking for quarterly meetings with the organization as a way to understand the issues our community faces and find ways to tackle those issues. We are also asking for a real environmental justice policy, where decision-makers have to look at vulnerable communities and the cumulative affects of pollution when making decisions that will impact our health and land. We also want more people of color on decision-making boards. We want folks who live in our communities and understand environmental justice issues to be part of the decision process when it comes to permits for polluting industries.
We’re fighting to protect our neighborhoods from pollution from a garbage incinerator. The Hennepin Energy Recovery Center (HERC) incinerator is asking for a 20 percent increase in how much garbage can be burned in our communities. We already deal with a heavy burden on our health from pollution. Our children cannot continue to bear the brunt of pollution while others cash in at our expense. We need to invest in more recycling and compost. This is cleaner, safer and would provide more jobs for our community. Garbage incinerators are not clean renewable energy as they claim. We have more choices then burn or landfill, recycle and compost is an option.
This work inspires me because I see the link between so many of the issues our community faces. I also believe it is my calling to do my small part to make the world a better place. I carry the words of Dr. King in my heart as I do this work: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
The injustices I am working to eliminate are symptoms of a deeper issue. We need a shift in consciousness to see our deep connection to each other and the earth. When we have that shift we realize it is in our best interest to not hurt another person or the amazing resources our mother earth provides. We live with the illusion of separateness, versus seeing our true connection to everything and everyone.
You can help by joining our effort to create zero waste in our community. Just go to our Facebook page and hit “Like.” On the page, you can get more information about the HERC burner, stay updated on events, and help inform others about the environmental justice issues we face. We can do this—but only if we stand together and show solidarity.
In 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit, Kareem Dale was working in Houston as a project manager for a construction company. It was a good job, but he sometimes wondered if there was something else out there—something more gratifying.
Then Hurricane Katrina hit. News reports about the devastation in New Orleans struck him deeply, and he knew he needed to do something to help. So he packed his bags, quit his job, and headed to Louisiana to see what he could do.
“My first reaction was, ‘what can I do?’” he says. “Then I got there. I saw the level of destruction.”
In the wreckage of New Orleans, he discovered a huge demand for people like him, who knew the construction business and could help as residents rebuilt their homes. He quickly realized that he could not only do good by helping survivors of the disaster—he could also do well by working as a project manager in a buzzing market.
It was a turning point that eventually led him to where he is today—at the helm of a thriving business that is helping both people and the planet. After leaving New Orleans, Dale, now 32 years old, founded The Gaia Group, Inc., a company that provides energy efficiency and weatherization services. Under his leadership, The Gaia Group has helped thousands of low-income Houston residents upgrade their homes and save on their energy bills.
He initially became interested in the industry, he said, because of its tremendous economic potential. “I was looking at the construction market, and I saw things trending toward green building. That eventually led me to energy efficiency.”
While he was in New Orleans, a friend of his suggested he start using his building crews to do weatherization work—which was in high demand. So he dove into the field, learning everything he could about how to build and fix homes to make them save energy. And then he decided to bring his idea back home.
He spent nine months working with a partner on a feasibility study to see how well a full-time energy efficiency business might do in Houston. “We picked apart everything. And we realized ‘We’ve got something here.’”
Just as they were finishing their business plan, the Recovery Act was signed into law. The result? The City of Houston had funds to make much-needed upgrades to low-income homes—upgrades that would slash carbon pollution from wasted energy, and help struggling residents save on their utility bills.
It also meant that the fledgling Gaia Group was inundated with business right from the start. Since then, the company has partnered with the City of Houston, non-profits and local public utilities to perform energy audits for vulnerable residents, like senior citizens and low-income families.
And it’s made a difference. Dale says one of the best feelings is when an elderly or low-income resident calls back after upgrades are finished to thank him and let him know how much they’re saving on their energy bills. The Gaia Group aims for a 30 percent reduction in kilowatt hours for each household they work on—and that translates into lower energy bills. For someone on a fixed income, it can mean the difference between buying groceries and going without.
The savings also have a ripple effect on the local economy, Dale points out. “Once the work is done, it pays back so quickly, it’s ridiculous. That money goes right back into the economy,” he explains. “If you’re suddenly paying $60 instead of $100 on your energy bill, you can spend that extra $40 on food or clothing. You can use it to buy something you couldn’t buy before.”
But it’s not just about saving on utility bills. In Houston’s climate, poor insulation and wasted energy can create unhealthy and uncomfortable living conditions. The Gaia Group’s employees will often find elderly residents draping blankets over the windows in an attempt to keep the heat out. Proper weatherization helps keep them cool—and safe from heat-related illness, as well as pollen and air pollution.
For Dale, who studied biology and public health at Morehouse College, making people’s homes healthier is deeply rewarding. That’s also why he places so much emphasis on treating customers well. In addition to facing poor living conditions, he says, low-income folks often don’t receive the service and professionalism they deserve. He’s out to change that. “I want my company’s legacy to be in the homes and hearts of the people we serve.”
Now, Dale is working to expand the benefits of energy efficiency even more. He’s started a pilot program that brings weatherization and upgrades to faith-based organizations. So far, The Gaia Group has worked on three Houston churches, with plans to do more. Dale uses the partnership as an opportunity to educate congregations about energy savings—and as a way to bring more workers into the field. His vision is to recruit church members who show an interest in weatherization, and connect them with job training programs that will help them get the skills they need to find an energy efficiency job.
Dale loves what he does—and he hasn’t stopped looking ahead. His next goal is to help serve as a champion for the industry, by advocating for more city programs and public-private partnerships that will bring energy savings to even more people—and help fight climate change in the process.
“It’s an amazing time to be in this industry,” he says.
Written by: Kaori Tsukada, Program Associate
When Andrew Butcher saw vacant lots, he also saw the potential to make them the heart of a community revitalization strategy. Vacant lots are empty parcels of land that pose a number of challenges – the appearance of disuse can attract illegal dumping, decrease property values in the surrounding area, and lead to general disrepair as well as significant costs for both neighbors and the municipality. In urban areas that house disadvantaged populations, lack of resources can lead to more vacant lots and blight designation.
Andrew, 32, first came to Pittsburgh from Boulder, Colorado as a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University, where he was pursuing his degree in public policy and management with a focus on community development. In 2006, Andrew and friends began building partnerships with community-based organizations, public agencies, small businesses, and other non-profits. Through these partnerships, the team began to trial innovative methods reclaim vacant lots in an effort to transition blighted lands into green spaces.
Fields of sunflowers began popping up throughout Pittsburgh. Sunflowers naturally absorb toxins that build up in the soil, and the seeds can be used to create biofuel. But beyond the practical uses, sunflowers introduced beauty and a shared space where there had only been empty land and waste before. This visual transformation may be the most powerful feature of this strategy – it not only spurred a change in the perception of a neighborhood, but invited interest and more opportunities for partnerships. Building on this initiative, Andrew and friends incorporated GTECH Strategies in 2007, one month before he graduated.
GTECH stands for Growth Through Energy and Community Health, and the best way to do it is from the bottom-up. GTECH Strategies currently runs two ambassadors programs – the ReClaim program, and the ReEnergize program built with support from Green For All. Over 40 ambassadors have trained with GTECH Strategies since 2007. First they go through a one-year training period to learn about environmental issues and develop skills to continue building community initiatives around sustainability. The ambassadors are selected by neighborhood and among a cohort of individuals who have already shown initiative in community or green endeavors.
The two programs were built on a core principle that GTECH Strategies has found crucial when building a broader and more inclusive network; communicating across completely different sectors, all of which use different language to point to the same thing, or think of the same issue in entirely different ways.
Andrew says that it takes a village to reclaim a vacant lot, or to create a job. GTECH Strategies is so successful because their green initiatives are not exclusively for environmental benefits, but also develop into opportunities around employment and answering community needs. Repurposing vacant lots halts the decline of property values and attracts interest. Energy efficiency leads to more money in the pockets of residents and less carbon in the atmosphere. Installing even small tracts of solar panels makes clean energy available to residents, and local electricity generation. All of these initiatives create local jobs, and communication is what cements key partnerships around these initiatives.
In the past six years, GTECH has transformed Pittsburgh in many ways. Right now GTECH directly employs 13 staff in addition to 23 ambassadors. In addition, GTECH also supported the development of 400 jobs since 2007 through partnerships and programs. These partnerships have also led to over 350 vacant lots converted, close to 200,000 lbs of mitigated carbon. Energy savings through the new ReEnergize program will soon follow through accessible energy efficiency upgrades.
As GTECH Strategies moves forward into its growth phase, it is starting to tackle a number of issues. As with all organizations on a growth trajectory, access to capital is a constant issue. GTECH is also developing new methods of evaluation that demonstrate their impact clearly.
A number of external factors could also make GTECH’s job easier. In the field of energy efficiency and renewable energy financing, repayment mechanisms such as on-bill repayment (paying back the cost of an efficiency upgrade through a surcharge on the utility bill) and PACE (paying back the cost of an efficiency upgrade through property tax) would open up options and access to more residents. Part of ReEnergize’s policy committee is also developing an initiative around including information on energy efficiency upgrades in real estate Multiple Listing Services to inform prospective homebuyers. In order to expand their work with vacant lots, Andrew is a proponent for developing a public authority called a land bank, which has authority over all publicly owned and controlled land. A land bank is a managing authority around acquiring, holding, and transferring property title for empty plots of land. This would make access to and repurposing of vacant lots much easier for the community.
GTECH Strategies’ initiatives are based on a vision of creating opportunities in ways that continue to inspire and resonate with other people to take action in ways that they haven’t thought about before. Seeing a previously vacant lot now filled with sunflowers sparks interest and shifts perspectives in a way that inspires further action. Creating that change is what empowers communities.
By Maritza Martinez
Green For All Fellow Hakim Cunningham feels that “service work is one of the highest calling a man can undertake in his lifetime.” He is the director of organizing at the Boston Workers Alliance, a community organization led by unemployed and underemployed workers fighting for employment rights.
Boston Workers Alliance addresses one of the nation’s most grim federal government statistics – one out of every six black men has served time behind bars. The organization provides judgment-free services to help members understand their rights and navigate the process for keeping their criminal histories from inhibiting the job search process. Over the past six years, Hakim has personally helped more than 2,400 people overcome their criminal records through leadership development and political and economic education. He helps the formerly incarcerated get a fresh start, find employment and build their skills.
Hakim also builds community gardens where folks who are struggling financially can access fresh produce. Across the country, too many families still have to choose between fresh produce or paying their bills. .As restrictions on public assistance increase, Hakim has developed a way for people to feed themselves and their families.
“All we have is us,” he explains. “We cannot rely on others to help resolve our problems.” Hakim provides opportunities for youth and adults to learn about resilience, gain new skills, and grow their own healthy food. Someone might begin with a small pot of basil on his windowsill,and then, before too long he becomes a regular volunteer at the garden. Engaging the community in urban agriculture and skill development is critical to Hakim’s vision for creating more resilient communities.
Last summer, Hakim worked with thirty eager young people through a partnership with the Boston Youth Environmental Network. During a six-week internship with clean energy companies and non-profit organizations in Boston, he taught the youth about the opportunities available in the green economy through The Roots of Success environmental education curriculum. Watch testimonials from students who participated in the 2012 Roots of Success Clean Energy Internship.
Investing in youth, families, and those who’ve gone through the criminal justice system are all part of rebuilding strong communities. Hakim is making it his life’s work to build the change he wants to see in his community and the world.
“What we really need is funding and donations to further the work,” he says.”This work is done out of love, but we incur a financial debt trying to do it.”
To find out how you can contribute to Hakim’s work visit: http://bostonworkersalliance.org/.
By Kaori Tsukada
Nate Dais never imagined that he’d be designing and constructing park trails—or that he’d enjoy it so much. A few years ago, he was working at a job that didn’t pay enough, and when the economic downturn came, he hit a wall; there were no jobs available. With no way out, he did what he had to do to make ends meet. When he heard about a training program his cousin was doing, it opened a door. Dais knew he wanted to transform his life.
Dais took a number of tests and was admitted to the Breaking the Chains of Poverty Program run by the A. Philip Randolph Institute’s Pittsburgh Chapter, in partnership with GTECH Strategies, the United Steelworkers, and the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh. He received training five days a week during the paid six-week intensive pre-apprenticeship program. On top of the training, nearly every day different speakers gave presentations about roof gardens, solar-powered buildings, and the job potential of the green economy. He earned certifications for remediation skills and graduated with an OSHA 30 training card, proving his ability to recognize and reduce hazards at work.
Dais now works for the Mount Washington Community Development Corporation, constructing trails on Emerald View Park. The Park covers the entirety of Mount Washington, whose coal seams fueled Pittsburgh development into coal country in the 19th century. When the coal ran out, it drained the city of jobs and left the mountainside barren and ugly. Mount Washington Community Development Corporation is taking this once devastated mountain, reforesting parts, and creating trails in others. In the process, it is bringing jobs back to local residents.
Emerald View Park is still covered with the foundations of old houses and buildings built during the coal era. Part of Dais’s job is to clear away the debris, leaving the foundations safe to walk through. He uses flags to plot out new trails. Once the path is marked, he and his crew come through with hand tools, breaking down big boulders with picks, and defining a path through the forest. Water used to run down the mountain directly with no clear path. Now Dais’s trail continues over a guided stream, a crossing built over it with wood the crew carried in on foot. When he first started, Dais was disappointed that he was just maintaining old trails. Now that he is working on developing new trails, he’s hooked.
Even though Dais loves his job, he knows that his position will last only as long as there is funding, so he’s also saving up to start his own business. His plan is to create a car wash and lawn-mowing service so that his customers can complete two chores with one call. He intends to put his strong work ethic and dedication toward his one-year-old son into his business. In 20 years, he hopes to supervise a team around his budding business and expand into other regions.
Dais hopes that local and state government will continue to encourage programs like Breaking the Chains of Poverty. Many of his crew members used to be in jail, or are on probation. Now, they arrive at the jobsite on time and work with dedication. From his own experience, Dais knows that getting paid to do work like this stimulates the mind and gives people opportunities to improve their lives. Trails also draw local residents. Joggers and hikers enjoying the trails often drop by while the crew is working, stopping to say thanks and showing appreciation for their hard work. Programs that create pathways out of poverty benefit society as a whole.
Amery Romero’s family has lived in Truchas, New Mexico for generations. Since the 1600s, they’ve farmed and raised cattle in the area. But over the past few decades, more and more of Truchas’ residents have streamed out of the town, leaving to work at the nearby Los Alamos National Laboratory, or heading to Santa Fe in search of jobs.
And life in Truchas has gotten tougher. Today, there are almost no real opportunities to make a living in the town. And prospects aren’t much better even when you leave. At 23 years old, Romero has watched many of his neighbors turn to the one way they know how to make a living: Selling drugs.
“Nobody wants a life where you barely get by,” he explains. “Selling drugs is the only promising career. Or you’re going to be so stressed out from the facts of life that you’re going to escape with using drugs.”
It is a painful reality in Truchas and other small rural towns in the region. “You see a lot of people running head-on into this problem,” he says. “You can’t just say ‘you’ve got to get your life right, you’ve got to go to school.’ For people like us, going to school is harder. We have to get jobs.”
But Romero has fought to find another way. A few years ago, he signed up with Santa Fe YouthWorks, an organization that has spent the past decade expanding opportunities for low-income youth. Through the program, Romero joined a crew charged with restoring the Santa Fe River through clean up and erosion control.
Determined to claw his way out of poverty, he woke up at six each morning so he could hitchhike 60 miles into Santa Fe to work.
As a result of his experience on the river crew, Romero became more and more interested in water conservation issues. That led him to the Santa Fe Water Conservation District, where he works today. As an intern with the District, his focus is on promoting water conservation by educating community members about rebates they can receive for installing rain barrels or water-efficient appliances like clothes washers.
Now, he hopes to find a long-term career in water conservation. The deeper he dives into the field, the more promise he sees in green jobs—not just in water, but in energy efficiency and solar and wind power.
But Romero is also honest about his motivation. He wasn’t initially drawn to the sector because he wanted to protect the environment. He was just determined to find a way to make a decent living, and his research led him again and again to green industries.
“I kept turning over rocks, and everywhere I looked, people were focused on the environment,” he explains.
He credits Youth Works with supporting him on his journey and opening up doors in the green economy. But he recognizes that there are many more young people like him who don’t have the same kind of opportunities.
“There are a lot of kids in my position who come from poor towns, but they don’t have a lot of mentors. When people leave and succeed, usually they don’t look back. They close the door behind them.”
Romero wants to change that. He hopes to enroll in a program that will allow him to get an associate’s degree in environmental technologies, and pursue a career in water conservation. But as he plans for his future, he is keeping one eye on the community he came from, and on finding ways to help others escape poverty.
“What I’m really passionate about is my people,” he says. “I’m passionate about helping them out of their struggle.”
By Maritza Martinez
There’s a lot of talk about community resilience, but what does it really mean? How can we make sure our communities are ready to survive—not only in the face of disasters wrought by climate change, but during economic downturns and whatever else may come our way?
Green For All Fellow Naomi Davis has a solution that she calls “green village-building.” She defines it, at least in part, as having a walk-able community, with everything we need within one mile of where we live. This vision does not include big box stores—she wants to make sure the money we spend in our communities stays in our communities. “Neighbor-owned businesses are the Holy Grail. Without them, all we have is a colony. You just exist for someone else’s wealth,” she explains.
This past weekend, Naomi, the founder of Blacks in Green (BIG), presented her model at the Green Festival in Chicago. She described the conservation lifestyle that she calls “The Beautiful Life.” It’s based on the idea that going back to a simpler lifestyle, like the one our parents lived, is the way to alleviate many of the problems that afflict our communities. During her parents’ time, she explains, “Everything they ate, they grew. Everything they wore, they made. And wealth was having a skill, not pieces of paper.”
She uses performing arts to share the principle and teach others about The Beautiful Life. And that’s just what she did at Green Festival—using a stage show to teach participants about crowdfunding.
Recently, Naomi teamed up with Michael William Cunningham, author of The Jobs Act: Crowdfunding for Small Businesses and Startups to build blackcrowdfunding.net. This is not just another crowdfunding site. It provides support to entrepreneurs every step of the way to make sure they are successful. Participants are raising money for gardens, new businesses, solar generators, and much more. Meanwhile, BIG has also launched BIG Black Crowdfunding Clubs to support crowd-raisers as they launch and manage their campaigns. These clubs are being piloted in Chicago and will soon be across the country.
You can join Naomi in living The Beautiful Life, and be part of the movement to build resilient communities by supporting projects on blackcrowdfunding.net. Download the campaign packet, and like them on Facebook. Let’s ensure that all of our communities have enough resources to survive.