The Common Good
May 2009

The New Environmental Advocates

by Celeste Kennel-Shank | May 2009

Chicago's Wilbur Wright College helps workers turn blue collars to green.

Victoria Cooper can rattle off the challenges that green job training programs face as quickly as she can the reasons for excitement. Cooper, who directs environmental technology programs at Chicago’s Wilbur Wright College, cautions that there’s “no such thing as recession-proof jobs.” Yet green workers will be required if the United States is to clean up the messes of global warming and pollution. “Everyone thinks this is a panacea and is going to change the world,” Cooper said. “The reality is there’s a lot of work to be done, and it’s complicated.”

Some places to start are the areas in which Wright College’s programs prepare students: energy auditing, managing hazardous materials, alternative energy, and environmentally friendly construction. Cooper estimates that 90 percent of the program’s graduates—22 so far since fall 2006, with 22 more students enrolled—are employed in jobs in which they use skills they learned at the school.

Buildings are a key area for reducing greenhouse gas emissions through cutting fossil-fuel use. Residential, commercial, and public buildings account for 38 percent of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions, and consume 72 percent of the nation’s electricity, according to the independent organization the U.S. Green Building Council. New buildings can be designed to be environmentally friendly. Older buildings can be made more energy efficient. Wright, a city college of Chicago, offers a building energy occupational technologies certificate to students who complete six courses on energy systems for commercial and residential buildings, the technical aspects of alternative and renewable energy sources, and building operation and maintenance.

Edwin Ayala, who graduated from Wright College in December, is working to improve new and old buildings. In February he was preparing for the test to qualify him to certify buildings through the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating system administered by the U.S. Green Building Council. He is also a senior energy efficiency associate with Green Dream Group in Chicago, whose Web site says improving your building performance is “the greenest thing you can do.”

Ayala’s work includes helping clients cut their heating gas costs by depressurizing the home to find where air is seeping in from outside, then blocking those gaps with caulking and weather-stripping around doors. The idea of saving energy isn’t a new one for Ayala. “Ever since I was a little kid, my dad used to teach us to weatherize windows,” he said.

Ayala was working in real estate when he read an article in the Chicago Tribune about green-collar jobs. He decided to enter Wright College’s program and began in January 2008. “I did the right move at the right time,” he laughs. Ayala hopes to someday get a master’s degree in sustainable development. “Being a home energy auditor is a great way to start in a career,” he said. “It’s helping bring some stability and income in the meantime.”

In developing the program and its curriculum, Wright College partnered with energy, architecture, and construction firms using the environmental technologies at construction sites. All of the faculty are practitioners in their fields. Some recruit students to Wright College’s program from among their employees, while others have hired graduates.

The college is also part of the Chicagoland Green Collar Jobs Initiative, started in September 2007 as the idea of green jobs was taking off. The initiative is an alliance of business, educational, community, environmental, and labor groups, including the Chicago Sustainable Business Alliance, Blacks In Green, and Arise Chicago, an affiliate of Interfaith Worker Justice.

Rev. C. J. Hawking, executive director of Arise Chicago, said initiative partners are coordinating efforts in anticipation of millions of dollars in funding being allocated for green jobs in Chicago.

Hawking has visited Wright College and appreciates that Cooper shares Arise Chicago’s commitment to “making sure these jobs are living-wage, preferably even union jobs, to make sure everyone’s environment and living standard are lifted together.”

Hawking, a United Methodist pastor, sees green-collar jobs, such as the home energy auditing done by Wright graduates, as an opportunity for people of faith to combine concerns for the environment and social justice.

“God calls us to live holistically,” Hawk­ing said. “Green-collar job initiatives allow us to relax in our homes, being better stewards of the earth, while hiring workers who receive a living wage and decent benefits.”

JUMAANI BATES, a recent graduate of Wright’s program, has also been partnering with people of faith in his environmental outreach work. He will work with several Chicago-area churches in the coming year. Some of the congregations have asked for guidance in making their church buildings more energy efficient, educating their constituencies, and “getting folks mobilized in the national movement.” His Muslim congregation is looking at doing the same.

Bates entered Wright College looking to get more green in his wallet by earning a higher wage. After finishing Wright’s program, Bates focused on social justice and reaching out to other African Americans to share the information he learned. He wants to “give folks the opportunity to make a sustainable wage and have sustainable communities.”

In the winter, Bates coordinated logistics for events planned by Wright College’s environmental technology department and managed the college’s recycling initiative. He does more than just make sure the recycling gets picked up; he works to reduce the amount of recyclable goods, through strategies such as offering water in a cooler rather than individual bottles at work events. He plans to start a job with an organization that does urban farming on the South Side of Chicago during the coming year.

Bates sees in the green economy the potential to drive in stakes for a big tent—all races, religions, classes, and genders. “It’s important for us to redefine what an environmental advocate looks like,” he said, away from the stereotypes of wealthy, white tree-huggers. He sees the recession as an opportunity to change the way our economy functions and deal with the problems of our time. “We don’t want to keep waiting for Katrina before we fix the levees,” he said.

Bates speaks with urgency as he tells African Americans and other audiences that the current situation of climate change is dire. He first counteracts the idea that global warming is “all about the polar bears, not the humans.” He emphasizes that what’s good for the environment is good for human health too.

Bates has seen successes in his work. Com­munities have cleaned their neighborhoods, improved their indoor air quality by bringing in plants, and planted community gardens to grow some of their own food. There are also hopeful signs among employers. “Our turnout in the conferences, our attendance in the classes, show us there is a need in the private sector” for work Wright graduates can do, Bates said. At least seven of his classmates have jobs in the green workforce already.

THE SUCCESSES ARE encouraging, yet challenges remain. One is the safety of workers, a special concern for Victoria Cooper, who worked for decades with a health advisory group before coming to Wright in 1997. The environmental technology program had started three years prior with a grant to train people to handle hazardous waste materials. Such workers are still needed, and proponents of green jobs will need to look at making sure workers have adequate protection.

Green jobs training programs are the object of many people’s hopes for aiding unemployed populations. The goal is to provide green jobs for dislocated youth, ex-offenders, and others, “jobs that will bring them out of poverty and into the middle class,” Cooper said. Toward that end, Wright College’s open-enrollment program accepts some students with only basic job skills, even if they gained those abilities in another work training program or a re-entry program after incarceration. “We take people from where they are, and try to move them forward,” Cooper concluded.

Most students are already workers in energy, business, and construction. Many have full-time jobs, so courses are offered twice a week for several hours at night to accommodate their schedules. Some students start the program with a master’s degree level of study; others having barely finished high school. The program encourages students with less experience to pair with more experienced students. “As we develop this,” Cooper continued, “we have to see a career ladder where there are entry points at various levels of expertise.”

The recent job losses as a result of the economic downturn amplify the problem of creating jobs for the unskilled as more and more workers become unemployed. Labor organizations are looking for ways to make their job-training programs more green, Cooper said. Yet, not enough jobs currently exist to be made into green jobs for all the people who need them—skilled or not.

For students who need basic training, it’s difficult for the Wright program to teach the science, math, and engineering skills required for jobs in energy, construction, and hazardous waste management. “We have a real deficit in science and math training” in public and private schools, Cooper said. “Our educational system is a real barrier to technological advancement.”

Celeste Kennel-Shank studied environmental studies at Goshen College and journalism at North­western University’s Medill School.

By the Numbers

- The construction industry comprises 13.4 percent of the $13.2 trillion U.S. Gross Domestic Product.

- Commercial and residential building construction alone constitutes 6.1 percent of the U.S. GDP.

- Buildings represent 38.9 percent of U.S. primary energy use, including fuel used for production.

- Buildings account for 38 percent of all U.S. CO2 emissions.

- Buildings represent 72 percent of U.S electricity consumption.

- Buildings use 13.6 percent of all potable water in the U.S.

- In the U.S., 136 million tons of building-related waste was generated in a single year.

- Renewable energy and efficiency industries generated 8.5 million jobs in 2006 and may account for as many as one in four jobs by 2030.

Sources: “Going Green: The Vital Role of Community Colleges in Building a Sustainable Future and Green Workforce” by Mindy Feldbaum, with Hollyce States (2009) and “Green Building by the Numbers” (U.S. Green Building Council, February 2009).

Retooling the Way We Think

While green jobs training programs such as the one at Chicago’s Wilbur Wright College gear graduates for a set of jobs needed to address climate change, those are not the only jobs that can be retooled in a new green economy. Victoria Cooper, the program’s director, sees the current U.S. situation as an opportunity to think bigger. “It is amazing to me that there is this confluence of serious economic downturn and concern for the environment,” she said. “What better time to reinvent ourselves?”

In her office, where a DVD of An Inconvenient Truth sits on her desk, she explains that green jobs are not their own category, with separate sets of skills. Rather, “there is no job that exists today that can’t be greened in some way,” she said. “The question is what motivates people to do that and why.”

Cooper points to an article by Michael Pollan, an author focusing most recently on food politics, called “Why Bother?” In the article, Pollan delves into the question of virtue pitted against economic drivers for environmental change. Pollan deals with conflicting research on what reduces one’s carbon footprint—is it better to eat food grown locally or shipped by boat from New Zealand?—and the issue of whether personal choice really matters when large-scale legislation and funding are required.

More than a century of cheap fossil fuels has given residents of industrialized countries a mindset that sees energy as cheap and easy to get, Pollan argues. It is that mindset we each must rid ourselves of in order to become workers in the new green economy. That is something everyone can do, graduate of a green job training program or not.

Cooper takes hope in signs of changing attitudes. People are talking more about the environment and recycling, and “can embrace a simpler lifestyle,” she said. “Whether it’s driven by economics or by virtue, or both, people are redirecting what’s important in their lives.”

—CKS

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