On Earth Day here in America, we can take notice that we are 5 percent of the world’s population but that we produce 25 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases, waste and consumption. We might also want to take notice of an uglier twin statistic from the London School of Economics: The United States produces 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population.
Many are imprisoned for economic reasons; when there appear to be no other options, poverty compels some people to enter the illegal economy. People getting out of prison have a hard time finding employment, and about two-thirds of them are back behind bars within two years. Are green jobs—putting up wind turbines and solar panels, and insulating homes—going to help these people? Maybe, but most of those jobs will probably be filled by skilled workers no longer employed in the construction trades.
I have made it my business to use the green economy as a social and economic solution to poverty. I want to Green the Ghetto.
I learned firsthand. I grew up in an ongoing economic and environmental crisis called the South Bronx, NYC. Joblessness and environmentally borne health problems have kept people from realizing their potential. At the same time, governments have been burdened with growing social welfare, public health, incarceration and infrastructure costs—all to subsidize pollution-based systems with government dollars and people’s lives.
I moved back into my parents’ home—and to my old neighborhood—in the late ’90s in order to afford graduate school. At the time, it felt like a defeat, but it was the best move of my life. A little distance and education gave me a fresh look at how we regulate the environment and got me thinking about how cleaning up the environment could serve a dual purpose.
During that time, our city and state governments were attempting to concentrate polluting facilities in poor sections of the city such as our neighborhood. We already handled far more than our share, thank you, and had less than one tree per acre. I helped organize people and organizations to shift those policies toward positive green economic development and later, in 2001, founded Sustainable South Bronx, a nonprofit environmental justice solutions corporation.
One of our first projects was the Bronx River. We knew that river restoration could start at any scale and grow. But we also saw that the labor to do the restoration was being imported—at a time when our neighborhood’s unemployment rate was 25 percent. We put together a job training and placement system that eventually included riverbank and estuary stabilization, urban forestry, brownfield remediation and green-roof installation.
Many of our participants were formerly incarcerated, and all were on some form of financial assistance. In terms of costs to government, these are society’s most expensive citizens. But what might not be as well known is that people who have a hard time participating in society—those who have suffered the trauma of prison, poverty or combat—do better when they work with living things and when they know that their work improves our collective society. That kind of work is extremely therapeutic. And they got paid!
Since 2003, our Bronx Environmental Stewardship Training (BEST) program has maintained a job placement rate exceeding 80 percent, and 10 percent of our participants have gone on to college. It is one of the first and one of the most successful green jobs programs in the country. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently followed our lead and unveiled a tree planting and maintenance job training program modeled on our efforts. With our ideas and his access to funding, there’s no telling how much progress can be made toward Greening the Ghetto.