4 Change-Makers Poised for Success

From green advocacy to immigrant rights, these black social entrepreneurs want to make a difference.

BlocPower's Donnel Baird; Fight for Light's John Jordan and Markese Bryant; AIDA's Amaha Kassa (Echoing Green)
BlocPower's Donnel Baird; Fight for Light's John Jordan and Markese Bryant; AIDA's Amaha Kassa (Echoing Green)

However, he’s had to do his fair bit of convincing. “The challenge is explaining the emerging technologies to folks in our community and explaining to the environmentalists and solar companies why our community is an important customer for them,” Baird said.

Teaching Green

For John Jordan, at least, it’s obvious why black communities should invest in the environment. “Climate change is real; as [humans] we need to address it,” he told The Root. “The green economy has enabled social justice to take on a new look. As we work with students, they want to actually have work with meaning.”

He and Bryant are banking that millennials have a long-lasting and genuine desire to do social-impact work. Their efforts are focused on preparing the next generation of black green advocates. By fall 2013, Fight for Light will have enrolled 10 to 15 students from Morehouse, Spelman and Clark Atlanta University to participate in its inaugural three-year fellowship program. During the first year, students will attend a series of environmental literacy workshops. The second year, fellows work toward becoming certified as professional energy auditors in order to be able to properly assess how buildings can implement green strategies. In the final year, the emphasis is on “design thinking” — developing one’s own sustainability project and seeing it through to implementation.

“In the black community we’re at forefront of all environmental issues, if we’re talking about pollution, obesity,” Bryant told The Root. “But once we talk about environmental leadership, we’re at the margins. We’re trying to address that.”

Organizing Newcomers

Meanwhile, Kassa is setting himself up to be a leader in a different area — among African immigrant communities. Citing vibrant support institutions often associated with Latino and Asians populations, the Harvard grad said he has long wondered why there weren’t the same types of mutual aid organizations for Africans new to the United States.

“It’s the story of every immigrant community,” he told The Root. “People come here and don’t get ahead by themselves. They get ahead with other members of their group. They build institutions, whether you call them welcome centers, worker centers or mutual aid centers … [groups have] created these institutions to help navigate the system, have a voice and be counted basically.”

Enter AIDA. Through a series of seminars and workshops, Kassa hopes to build a support network to improve the economic and educational prospects for first- and second-generation African immigrants. The model is to eventually provide direct services such as legal and housing counsel. Over the next six months, the focus will be on educating immigrants about the Deferred Action Childhood Arrival legislation, a bill signed by President Obama that provides temporary relief from deportation for immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.

“I’m trying to increase the number of African immigrants to adjust their status through DACA,” said Kassa, who also has a law degree from University of California at Berkeley.

The Alliance, which will soon change its name to African Communities Together, or ACT, will start out in New York City, focusing on the French-speaking West African residents of Harlem, the heavily Ghanaian section in the Bronx and the Liberian community in Staten Island, Kassa said. He hopes to be incorporated before the end of the year and encourages other blacks to find their own way to make a difference.

“We need African-American people especially thinking about how they can make an impact no matter where they are — [in the] private sector, public, nonprofit or hybrid [structure],” Kassa said. “We need people making an impact, whether it’s getting people hired where they work or using the wealth they accumulate to fund nonprofits, using money to plow back into communities. I’m not a big believer in silver bullets. It’s about a lot of small efforts coming together.”

Brett Johnson is an associate editor at The Root.

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