Million-Dollar Grant Helps Black Colleges Go 'Green'

The United Negro College Fund (UNCF) wants to help its member institutions put more environmentally sound practices in place. The group is the recent recipient of a $1.8 million grant from the Kresge Foundation to help advance their efforts. Michael Lomax, president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund, explains how some historically black colleges and universities are going "green."

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

It had laughs. It had tears, but it was never meant to see the light of day, but now it has. It's the teen diary and it may be coming to a theater near you. We'll tell you how in just a few minutes.

But first, as world leaders and activists gather in Copenhagen for the climate summit, it seems that more people are going green these days. Yet here in America, the image many people have of environmentalists is privileged, affluent and white. Despite the efforts of Kari Fulton, whom you just heard, the conventional wisdom has been that people in minority communities have little interest in so-called green issues, unless they're connected to the issue of environmental justice, for example.

But there are groups working to change that and now the United Negro College Fund is among them. The Fund has just received a $1.8 million grant from the Kresge Foundation to help UNCF member institutions and other minority-serving institutions put more environmentally sound practices into place. We wanted to know more so we called Michael Lomax. He is the president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund. He's here with me in our Washington, D.C. studio. Welcome. Thank you for joining us.

Dr. MICHAEL LOMAX (President, United Negro College Fund): Thank you. It's always good to be with you.

MARTIN: So do you agree with the premise that we often don't seem to connect minority communities with the environmental movement except on the basis of environmental justice?

Dr. LOMAX: That's right, you know, we usually think that�

MARTIN: �by toxic substances or something like that.

Dr. LOMAX: Yeah, black community is, you know, we're overly exposed to toxic substances. This is an interesting experience to sort of see yourself in a global context, because these minority communities, which in many cases are underserved and not wealthy, are still relative to the rest of the world, emitting a whole lot of greenhouse gases. And our communities can do a lot as global citizens to reduce the negative impact that we're having. But we can also save money at the same time.

MARTIN: It is interesting, though, that this is perceived as a movement of privileged people because as one writer told me once when we were talking about this issue. She said, you know, soul food is the original recycling. You know, if you think about it, minority communities traditionally have made a lot out of little. That has kind of been the ethos of these communities. I was just interested if you have an opinion about why we seem to have gotten away from that ethos.

Dr. LOMAX: Well, I think that the reality is that our communities are not small homogenous communities. I mean, we have both underserved parts of our communities. But we also have parts of our community which probably are consuming a lot more disproportionate to their size and who are having an adverse impact on the environment and have a responsibility to think about that and to act on it.

And I think it's wonderful that our colleges and universities, which are some of the longest-standing institutions we've built in our communities, and they speak to who we want to be and aspire to be. And this is an opportunity to think about how we can take those reflections of who we are and also make responsible statements as well.

MARTIN: And what will the grant specifically do? It will give energy audits to any institution (unintelligible)�

Dr. LOMAX: It will. It will help�

MARTIN: $1.8 million sounds like a lot but spread over 400 institutions�

Dr. LOMAX: No.

MARTIN: �is not a lot. I don't even know if you could change all the light bulbs with that.

Dr. LOMAX: No, you could not. So, we are going to provide, first of all, technical assistance. We're going to provide training. We're going to give some mini-grants that will enable specific institutions to do much more comprehensive plans on how they can save. But we're going to get the word out, and we think that these are institutions spending tens of millions of dollars annually on new construction and on renovation.

They're also spending money everyday on cleaning their facilities. So, you know, they can do green housekeeping and use less toxic materials. They can change light bulbs and reduce their annual operating costs, but they can also reduce the impact on the environment. So we're trying to raise awareness and we're doing this in partnership with the Kresge Foundation.

You know, Kresge has been around for a long time. They've been partners with minority-serving institutions. And what they're saying, and I think powerfully, they're saying, as they continue to do that, all that they're going to do is going to be green. They've selected UNCF to help spread the word. And so, we're going to educate our community. We're going to educate our institutions. But I think, also, we're going to educate a new generation of African-American, Hispanic and Native American students that they have an opportunity to have a positive impact on their environment.

MARTIN: How? I mean, do you think�

Dr. LOMAX: Well, well�

MARTIN: �do you think that they'll absorb that message through osmosis, if you will, just to have seen these projects go forward or is there some specific curriculum component to the work that you're doing?

Dr. LOMAX: There is not a specific curriculum component, but I'll tell you, I work in Washington, live in Atlanta and I pass by Spelman College almost every day when I'm in town.

MARTIN: You have a big carbon footprint flying back and forth like that.

Dr. LOMAX: I do have a big carbon footprint. We're not going to go - I'm doing good work. But at Spelman, we've just built the first LEED-certified dormitory. And I will tell you that at Spelman College, that's not just something that the president knows about or the Board of Trustees, the entire community knows what the impact of that.

MARTIN: And can you explain what that is? What's LEED certified mean?

Dr. LOMAX: It means Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. And it means that that building meets a very specific set of standards in terms of the impact it will have in terms of energy management and efficiency and all of the things that we do to reduce the negative impact of buildings on the environment. You know, 40 percent of the greenhouse gases that are emitted come from buildings.

So here, Spelman is building a new building that meets that LEED certification. They also do green housekeeping at Spelman. They have other projects. So the building project can be something that can be a teachable moment for the entire community.

MARTIN: What about encouraging the students to drive less?

Dr. LOMAX: Well, at most of our colleges, students aren't allowed to even bring a car in campus until their junior year. Now, you know, I, who did not learn to drive until I was teaching, I would hope that we could have a greater impact there. So that, as you say, it's a teachable moment, so you begin with the building. You begin with recycling. You begin with how I can personally have a positive impact. And one of the ways I can do this is reduce my use of my automobile.

MARTIN: While I have you here, before we let you go, I just wanted to ask about some of the broader challenges facing minority-serving institutions. It's no secret that a number of these institutions are under financial stress.

Dr. LOMAX: Yes.

MARTIN: And as I think you must know that there's a proposal in Mississippi for them to combine two historically black institutions or state-funded institutions in order to save money. And this is, like, I think a trend that we're seeing in other places around the country. And I just wondered if you have an opinion about that.

Dr. LOMAX: Well, all of the historically black colleges are being impacted by a brutal economy. And one of the challenges that that's putting before us is, one, to be more efficient. We're also being challenged to do all that we can to be more effective. How can we increase the number of students who attend our institutions? How can we do a more effective job on graduating those students? And I think that that's a reality facing all of us.

The proposal in Mississippi, in and of itself, doesn't have to be a bad one if it will ensure that more resources are going and more effectively used and if the three institutions are operated under an umbrella of Jackson State that may be a positive proposal.

At UNCF institutions, we are doing everything we can to operate as a network. Our institutions are independent. But we're asking how can we learn from one another? How can we save money? How can we purchase in bulk? How can we share best practices? How can a student at one institution using technology take a course at another institution?

Our president has said that his goal by 2020 is to increase the positioning of the United States once again to become the number one provider of college degrees. That cannot happen by shutting down historically black colleges or minority-serving institutions. But what we hope that the president is going to do and the philanthropic and corporate communities is to see that these are institutions which can be more efficient, which can be more effective. Invest in them and help them produce higher results.

At UNCF, our goal over the next 10 years is to double the number of college graduates from 8,000 a year at our 39 institutions to 16,000. If we do that, we are worthy of investment. We should continue to thrive and survive. And you know, we're going to challenge ourselves to do our job, but also the donor community who support us.

MARTIN: Michael Lomax is the president and CEO of the United Negro College Fund. He was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Mr. Lomax, thank you.

Dr. LOMAX: Thank you.

MARTIN: If you want to learn more about the environmental project we were just talking about, then you can go to our Web site. Also later in the week, we'll be bringing you more discussion about the proposed consolidation of historically black colleges and universities in Mississippi.

And if you have a personal connection to that story, we'd like to hear from you. Did you attend or graduate from Jackson State, Mississippi Valley State or Alcorn State University? How do you feel about the prospect of those schools being merged? To tell us more, please check at our Web site, go to the new npr.org, select TELL ME MORE on the program page and blog it out.

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