Public Comment

Van Jones, Majora Carter and the Green Jobs Movement

By Paul Rockwell
Wednesday February 25, 2009 - 07:58:00 PM

In February 2006, Majora Carter, co-founder of Green for All, delivered an impassioned address to a gathering of environmentalists. When she presented a poster that read “Green is the new Black,” the audience burst into applause. 

Carter, a close associate of Oakland’s Van Jones, author of The Green Collar Economy (Harper Collins, 2008), grew up across the street from a crack house in the South Bronx, at a time when whites fled to the suburbs, when landlords torched their own apartment buildings to collect insurance. 

While the South Bronx is the birthplace of rap music, break dancing—Hip Hop’s irrepressible culture—the historic borough is also an environmental calamity, the poorest Congressional district in the United States. New York City transfers 40 percent of its waste into the South Bronx. Dissected by three unwanted thruways, the borough encompasses a sludge plant, four power plants, and has the lowest park-to-people ratio in New York City. Sixty thousand diesel trucks pass through the area each week. 

Carter told CNN, “If power plants, waste handling, chemical plants and transport systems were located in wealthy areas as quickly and easily as in poor areas, we would have had a clean, green economy decades ago.” 

Because of Carter’s innovative social work in recent years, the borough that gave Hip Hop to the world is once again making history. Green history. 

A few years ago Carter leveraged a $10,000 grant into a $3 million 11-mile waterfront park. Carter is executive director of Sustainable South Bronx, an organization that alleviates poverty through environmental projects. Her Stewardship Training program moves the poor, especially youth, into living-wage green-collar jobs. Many of the students have prison records or were previously on public assistance. Therein is the premise of the burgeoning green economy. Nothing is wasted. All human energy is renewable. According to Ms. Carter, 85 percent of trainees and workers in the four-year program land steady green jobs from urban agriculture to green-roof installation and maintenance. 

The South Bronx is not alone. In 2007, without much fanfare, Congress enacted a Green Jobs Act, providing a modest amount of money—$125 million—for workforce training in the clean energy sector. The bill provides training for at-risk youth, ex-prisoners, returning veterans, and families that fall well below the poverty line. Green collar jobs are “career-track jobs,” says Van Jones. They’re family-supporting gigs that contribute to preserving and enhancing the environment. Installation of solar panels, construction and maintenance of wind turbines, urban agriculture, tree planting in cities, weatherization and retrofitting of buildings, remediation of brownfields (cleaning up abandoned, often-contaminated industrial sites), recycling and reuse of materials—these are jobs that generate local revenue, save energy, clean the environment, and cannot be exported. 

Inspired by Van Jones and the Ella Baker Center, the Green Job Corps began in Oakland, California. Olivia Caldwell is a young, single mother who lives in Oakland. Like the South Bronx, her community suffers from high unemployment, foreclosures, and violent crime. Olivia herself served time for petty theft. When she was released from prison, Oakland’s Green Job Corps changed her life. Backed by local trade unions and community colleges, 40 paid students were trained for green construction jobs, primarily in solar panel installation. Because trainees and workers come from low-income communities, the Green Job Corps offers a pathway out of poverty. For the first time in their lives, impoverished youth are gaining a tangible stake in climate solutions. As Mayor Ron Dellums put it: “This is an extraordinary effort. Elegant in its simplicity and embrace. You can fight pollution and poverty simultaneously.” 

And now, at long last, the president is an environmentalist. Obama picked Hilda Solis, a Latina, for secretary of Labor. It was Solis who authored the Green Jobs Act. 

African-Americans (Van Jones, Majora Carter, Jerome Ringo, Michael Gelobter, Anthony Thigpen, to name a few) are playing leading roles in the “greening of America.” The environmental movement today is more inclusive, more economically savvy, than the conservation movements of the past. For many decades the environmental movement in the U.S. lacked a practical economic agenda. Oil and auto industries dominated elections by convincing voters that environmentalism threatens jobs and economic stability. The oil industry even convinced the AFL-CIO to lobby against the Kyoto Protocol. 

Now the tables are turned. Far from threatening jobs, the environmental agenda actually constitutes the only practical, sustainable means for long-term economic revival. 

Jones’ Green Collar Economy may well become the most influential resource for the Obama administration. 

Labor, after all, is a renewable source of energy. And we cannot harness the geothermal energy of the inner earth, or the powers of the wind and sun, until we also harness the untapped creativity and yearnings of the poor, who still (43 years after the promise of the Great Society) languish in ghettos, barrios and reservations of misery and neglect. 

The Green Jobs Corps connects America’s poor to the noblest aim of our generation: the restoration of nature’s ecosystems, the fragile networks of mutuality that sustain all life. 


Paul Rockwell, formerly assistant professor of philosophy at Midwestern University, is a writer who lives in Oakland.