How Does 'Going Green' Impact Black America? The environmental movement has become increasingly mainstream, but on this 38th anniversary of Earth Day, we take a look at how it affects African Americans. For people struggling to survive a tough economy, do they have time to care about being "green"?
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How Does 'Going Green' Impact Black America?

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How Does 'Going Green' Impact Black America?

How Does 'Going Green' Impact Black America?

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From NPR News, this is News & Notes. I'm Farai Chideya. Global warming, eco-friendly, carbon footprint, environmental justice. Those phrases and the environmental movement they reference have become increasingly mainstream. This is the 38th anniversary of Earth Day. We'll take a look at how the environmental movement affects African-Americans. For people struggling to survive a tough economy, do they have time to care about being green? Can they afford not to care? Joining our discussion today is Monique Harden. She's co-director of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights. We've also got Norris McDonald, president of the African American Environmentalist Association. Hi, folks.

Ms. MONIQUE HARDEN (Co-Director, Advocates for Environmental Human Rights): Hello.

Mr. NORRIS MCDONALD (President, African American Environmentalist Association): How are you?

CHIDEYA: I'm doing great. Now, Monique, let me start with you. Being eco-friendly can be so trendy these days, but your group is looking at environmentalism from a legal and social justice framework. Tell me a little bit more about what you are up to.

Ms. HARDEN: Sure. Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, we're a public interest law firm based in New Orleans and we're dedicated to changing legal systems that make communities of color vulnerable to disasters and displacement. One of those legal systems is what we call "environmental protection."

CHIDEYA: And, Norris, a lot of African-Americans are living in areas near incinerators, toxic dumps, garbage landfills. What's your group doing to bring attention to toxic neighborhoods and how race can be a factor?

Mr. MCDONALD: The primary thing we are doing is we are promoting national legislation, a National Environmental Justice Act of 2008, to provide a weapon, a way for communities to protect themselves. Right now, there are no protections in place. The Civil Rights Act will not work. The Presidential Executive order on Environmental Justice will not work in a legal framework. So we have put together legislation that would solve the problem and would provide a tool for local communities to protect themselves. But there is also an incentive there for businesses. We call it a carrot. That is that a project can also be endorsed if the community and the other authorities approve the project in advance of the actual permit.

CHIDEYA: What's the state of this legislation, this proposal? I mean, who are your allies in this?

Mr. MCDONALD: Well, we are having a little trouble getting a sponsor for the legislation. Other legislation has been introduced that's actually more popular than our legislation. Congresswoman Solis from California has introduced another bill, but it basically codifies the Presidential Executive Order which is more of a federal agency cooperation and also advisory panels. Our legislation would actually put teeth into the situation and there's been somewhat of a reluctance to then compete with the other, more popular bill.

CHIDEYA: Well, Monique, let me go back to you. More specifics. Your group is located in New Orleans and, of course, the ramifications of Hurricane Katrina are still being felt there. What are you seeing on the ground in New Orleans?

Ms. HARDEN: Well, what's happening on the ground is a massive privatization that in particular affects African-Americans and poor people. It keeps us from returning to the places we call home. And really bright spots are people from our communities taking leadership and building community clinics, safely-back-home projects to get people home. But it's a real undertaking because we've got a system that doesn't protect our right to recover. No one in the U.S. has the right to recover after a disaster. And that's part of the problem. I mean, that's central to the problem, because our recovery has been turned into a promise, and an empty promise at that.

And one of the things that we are fighting for, with Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, is making recovery a right. And I think the same goes for environmental justice is that legislation needs to really be focused on the ways in which the current system violates human rights and how it can be changed and transform so that people do have the right to health, the right to life, the right to racial equality and freedom from racial discrimination.

CHIDEYA: Specifically, what are neighborhoods dealing with? I mean, we have been, as a show, down to New Orleans several times and saw the city flooded and saw the houses filled with mold and all that. And also saw things like people planting sunflowers to try to leach toxins out of the soil in the Ninth Ward. What's being done right now to try to improve the environmental health of communities like the Ninth Ward?

Ms. HARDEN: Well, again, it's the communities themselves really taking leadership. In parts of the Ninth Ward, you have sustainable green building for restoring and repairing and rebuilding housing of residents who were flooded out because of a breech of the levies, not by Hurricane Katrina, it's because of the substandard levies. That's, you know, a real bright spot in an otherwise underwhelming situation that we have, where recovery is being perverted as, you know - privatization is being called recovery.

But again, if you look at the Ninth Ward, there's the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association, the neighborhood group of folks who are going to be celebrating some new homes in the Ninth Ward that have been built with sustainable features and green building.

CHIDEYA: Let's talk, Norris, a little bit about what some folks are calling green-collar jobs. In the green building and construction business etc., what kind of jobs would fall under that umbrella?

Mr. MCDONALD: Wind, solar, those sorts of installations, but also utility programs. Utilities are replacing electric meters. And actually there were two conferences recently that discussed these issues. We are also co-sponsoring a conference that's going to not only address the green jobs issue, but a number of other environmental and environmental justice issues. The conference is being co-sponsored by Environmental Justice, Inc., several federal justice agencies including the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Interior, the Department of Agriculture, a number of grassroots activists.

So it's a very unique conference. We had the first one last year. This will be the second one this year. And green jobs are very popular right now. We really need to discuss those. We need to be talking to the utilities and others who are engaging in wind projects, trying to install photovoltaics. These sorts of areas will provide excellent employment for at-risk youth, maybe even ex-offenders. These are good electrician and plumbing jobs and also very technical jobs, some of the electronics involved in the smart meters.

CHIDEYA: Are African-Americans looking for jobs positioned to go out for these green jobs? I mean, I know that Oakland in conjunction with organizer Van Jones has made some moves in that direction. But over all, are black folks being considered or recruited for the kind of jobs you are talking about?

Mr. MCDONALD: Well, that's the sort of thing we're promoting. We want to get the word out. That's the reason organizations such as ours exist. We know the mainstream groups are going to try to do some things. But we also want to try to get this word out so that the public is made aware. You know, the economy is going south on us right now and this could provide a renaissance. I mean, not only can we protect the environment, but we can provide employment for low-income people, training for at-risk youth and people who really need the jobs while we are protecting Mother Earth.

CHIDEYA: What do you see, Monique? Do you see an opportunity? You talk about the community activism and people pulling together when they're not necessarily getting a lot of outside help in New Orleans. But do you see an opportunity for folks to enter some of these green jobs? And do you see people being recruited who are from New Orleans for these kinds of jobs?

Ms. HARDEN: Well, there are certainly opportunities. In New Orleans, the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice for more than a decade have been training African-American Men and Women in green jobs, and also finding employment opportunities as part of the training program that they offer. And so the opportunities certainly do exist, but I think one of the things we need to take a look at is not just market-based solutions, but really looking at the ways in which we can ensure that environmental protection actually does support human rights.

If we had a system that protected the human right to life health and racial equality, we - you know, the idea of green jobs would already be on the board and well supported. But the tension that we have is that on the one hand green jobs and sustainable building and sustainable energy and renewable energy is vying for space with the current system that is allowed for dirty, polluting facilities and oil refineries, coal-fired power plants and the like. And we think both - you know, efforts need to be made in both ways, both with the market-based solutions, but also legal solutions that changes the system.

CHIDEYA: Give me an example of what a success story is for you. Something you've seen, Monique, or something that you know that another group has worked on. What does success in dealing with race and environmentalism mean to you?

Ms. HARDEN: Well, success stories that we've had have involved embracing a community struggle to convince regulatory agencies around protecting the community from a polluting source. It's also meant to provide communities fighting for environmental justice with resources for controlling the development in their area and their neighborhood. Those have been success stories.

CHIDEYA: Norris, what is a success story to you?

Mr. MCDONALD: I think Omar Freyela(ph) in New York in the south Bronx, he has an organization called Green Worker Cooperatives. And they recycle products. They have a 17,000-square-foot warehouse right now, and they are collecting all kinds of products. And they are modifying those and reselling them to the community. They are providing training, they are providing employment and Omar has been at this a long time. South Bronx has many, many issues there in New York. We have a local office New York as well and we're going to try to cooperate to the extent we can. But that is an excellent success story and model that Mr. Freyela is doing in south Bronx.

CHIDEYA: And Norris, you know, there's all these technologies that can provide alternative energy like solar panels. But a lot of people, not just black folks, you know, but a lot of people cannot afford these technologies. What can people do on an individual level? If you are someone who wants to make a difference, what can you do?

Mr. MCDONALD: Well you can do the traditional things, such as the light bulbs and tighten up your house and weatherize your home to the extent you can engage in some of the metering activities with your utility that you're going to offer. But you know, we need to go beyond that on this 38th birthday or Earth Day. African-Americans and African-American entrepreneurs really need to get into ownership. Most of those light bulbs are actually made in China and they are hand-twisted. We can get into some of the industries and that's what we are promoting, is getting more ownership, more equity, not only the traditional energy areas, but in these emerging renewable energy areas.

CHIDEYA: Well, Norris, Monique, thanks so much.

Ms. HARDEN: Thank you.

Mr. MCDONALD: Thank you for having me.

CHIDEYA: We were speaking with Norris McDonald, president of the African American Environmentalist Association, and he joined us from NPR's headquarters in Washington, D.C., And Monique Harden, co-director of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights.

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