Making Green While Working Green

The new Green Jobs Act is a bill that will help train workers in environmental labor. Van Jones, president of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, tells how his California-based program inspired the legislation and how it will keep youths off the streets.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya and this is NEWS & NOTES.

You've heard the blue-collar jobs and white-collar jobs but what about green-collar jobs? More Americans are buying Earth-friendly goods and services including biofuels and energy-efficient buildings.

Van Jones is president of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and he thinks green jobs will help our environment and keep inner city kids off the streets. That's why Jones helped establish the Oakland Green Jobs Corps set to launch next year.

Hey, Van. How are you doing?

Mr. VAN JONES (President, Ella Baker Center for Human Rights): I'm great. How are you?

CHIDEYA: I'm doing great. So, what exactly is a green job?

Mr. JONES: Well, you know, the classic way out of poverty in the last century was to get a blue-collar job, a vocational job where you could be, you know, maybe work in manufacturing or whatever. The good side was you got some income, the bad side was you might be polluting and poisoning your own community.

Well, now the blue-collar jobs are disappearing and they're going to other countries and so we don't have that - those pathways out of poverty that we used to.

Fortunately, the green economy is starting to take off and the green-collar job is just a good vocational job in a green industry - putting up solar panels, weatherizing homes, working on wind farms - doing all of the things that we need to do to fight global warming pollution but at the same time beginning to fight poverty as well.

CHIDEYA: So the city of Oakland became one of the first cities to pass a Green Jobs Bill. How did you help make that happen and what exactly does that mean?

Mr. JONES: Well, what it means is that, you know, we've been starving our job training programs, our vocational programs, our community colleges in this country for, you know, 10 years, 20 years. And now, suddenly we've got to rebuild and retrofit the whole energy infrastructure and we don't have the trained workers.

And so what we said here in Oakland was we got all these young people who need jobs. There's a (unintelligible) labor shortage on these green jobs. Let's get our community colleges the money that they need to start training these young people to have that income. And what's great about is, you know, again, you're fighting pollution and poverty at the same time, and you're also restoring hope to communities that, frankly, the government walked away from a long time ago.

CHIDEYA: Now, last month, the House Education and Labor Committee passed the Green Jobs Act of 2007, so was that legislation inspired by your program and what does that do?

Mr. JONES: Well, yeah, that's H.R. 2847 and it was inspired by the work that we are doing here in Oakland and other people are doing across the country. What it will do if it passes as a part of the energy bill is to make sure that there is money on the table to train 35,000 people across the country in these green-collar jobs. If we're going to actually meet this need - everybody is talking about global warming, Al Gore, Live Earth, etcetera et cetera - but what everybody is talking about is it's not just about changing a light bulb, we've got to change the whole infrastructure and you can't do that without workers, and the good thing this is these are jobs that can't be fit overseas to India or China - you know, God bless them, I want their economies to do well. But these are jobs that have to be done in the United States. You got to weatherize millions of buildings right here, plug up those holes so they don't leak so much energy.

Well, the good thing about that is you teach a young person how to weatherize a building, how to double pane that glass. That young person can now join the union as a glazer. If you're putting up solar panels, you're on your way to becoming an electrical engineer. You can join the United Electrical Workers Union. That's a green pathway out of poverty.

So when we try to meet this energy challenges and environmental challenge trying to save the polar bears, you also have a chance to save a whole generation of African-American, Latino and poor youth in our inner cities.

CHIDEYA: You make a point - you've made a point many times in the past that the environmental movement cannot just be for white people by white people. I want you, though, to take me inside some of the conversations that you've had with young people as you bring this up to them.

Do they say to you, Van, you're crazy, this is weird, what are you talking about? It's never going to happen. Well, what kind of reaction do you get?

Mr. JONES: Well, what's so great about it is that, you know, young people are not stupid. They're paying attention. The first question that we get when we finish making our pitches, okay, well, where is my job? I mean, for them, it's straightforward, it sounds cool. It sounds interesting. It sounds fun. They want to know, you know, where they sign up.

And I think that's what really interesting because, I think, often there's a stereotype that African-Americans, Latinos, urban folks don't care about the environment. Well, we don't care about it if you talk about the rainforest or the abstract issues.

But when you talk about asthma and you talk about cancer and you talk about the environmental health of the neighborhood and you say, we could take down some of these, you know, polluting power stations and put up some solar panels on your grandmother's house, and take that asthma inhaler out of your little sister's pocket, people say, hey, sign me up. Sign me up.

So I think that the way that environment has been described has primarily appealed to the affluent - people who already have opportunities. They're concerned about the crisis of other species. In our community, we have our own crises; we need some opportunity. The green economy represents the biggest economic opportunity.

According to Bill Gates, the biggest economic opportunity in the country is time for us as Afro-Americans, Latinos, poor folks to say: We want our share. This green wave that's coming should lift our boats. We should build a green economy that is strong enough to let people out of poverty.

CHIDEYA: Let me play devil's advocate for a minute. So you have this idea for starting green jobs but in the same cities that you're talking about, including Oakland, a lot of folks graduate from high school not even knowing how to read at the proficiency level where they're considered functionally literate. How do you deal with people who have all sorts of other needs and bring them into a situation where they can do these jobs?

Mr. JONES: Well, that's a really great point and that's the part of the point with our Green Jobs Corps that we're doing in Oakland. There's going to be a tendency when you say, okay, we're going to just retrain existing workers who are already in the economy and doing, okay, let them do these jobs.

What we're saying is that a green economy can't just be about reclaiming throwaway stuff. It's also about reclaiming throwaway neighborhoods, throwaway schools, throwaway children, and so it costs about one to $2,000 to retrain a job-ready worker. It costs about $8,000 to get somebody who's not job ready up to speed.

Well, the act is moving through congress. This Green Jobs Act has special money in there to help those people who are not job ready, get job ready, and get them in the economy. And I'm really proud of our Representative Hilda Solis, Representative Tierney from Massachusetts and Speaker Nancy Pelosi for having the wisdom to put into the Green Jobs Act special help to get those of us in our communities who need that extra support. The wraparound services, the stipends, the childcare, the bus fare to get into this economy, to get them that support.

CHIDEYA: All right, Van, thank you so much for sharing your vision with us.

Mr. JONES: Well, thank you so much. You know, we're hollering green jobs not jails now in Oakland, that's what we want. Green jobs not jail. Thank you very much.

CHIDEYA: All right. Van Jones is president of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, and he helped found the Oakland Green Jobs Corps. Jones spoke with us from the studios of the U.C. Berkeley School of Journalism.

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