Earning Green by Going Green

Born and raised in the ultra-polluted Suisun City, California, Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins would eventually decide to make environmental justice in communities of color her life’s work. As the current CEO of Green for All, a post she took when Van Jones vacated it for the Obama administration, Ellis-Lamkins is at the forefront of the battle against pollution of every form in America’s working class enclaves.

Tomorrow, she will stand alongside NAACP President Ben Jealous at the One Nation Working Together march, an event dedicated to achieving economic security for people of all races. And if Ellis-Lamkins has her way, that security will take on a green hue.

The Root: What was the genesis or Green for All’s involvement in One Nation Working Together?


Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins: One Nation Working Together was really about making sure that the voices of our communities were heard in Washington, D.C. These past months we’ve seen the healthcare victory, but we also watched the loss of the climate bill. And that’s made me understand that in the absence of people really coming together and working together and saying, “There is an agenda of the American people,” we won’t see the change that we want.

TR: The emphasis of the march is very much focused on jobs and equal justice. How do those goals relate to what Green for All is trying to accomplish?

PE: We really want to create a green economy that brings all people into the economy. And so the idea of this march is that we can stand and say there is a movement of people who want to see an economy that’s energy efficient, that allows us to be energy independent, but also allows the most vulnerable people to actually participate in that economy. We want to see a woman in Richmond as successful as a man in West Virginia. There is a belief that if we get to change the rules of the economy then we get to build a whole new economy, and we want to make sure that our communities are part of the beginning, not the end.

TR: How will the green industry benefit the black community in ways other industries won’t?


PE: First is the way that it will immediately improve our health. I grew up in a community that was mostly people of color and poor people, and it as within in 30 miles of a Shell refinery, a Chevron refinery, Anheuser-Busch and C&H Sugar. So often for the African American community, the good jobs are also ones that cause harm in our own community, whether it’s pollution—people say that when you see a smokestack you know there’s people of color nearby—or junk food and alcohol. We want to be able to create jobs that don’t pollute our communities. We want to have relationships with industries that are part of the new creation of jobs. The example I would give is—forget even wind and solar—when we look at the growth of electric cars, we want to be able to see those jobs in our own community.

TR: What can African Americans do to become involved in the green movement?

PE: The first thing we need to do is educate ourselves so that we know what the issues are. Consider the climate bill that was in the House of Representatives; we were able to put a provision in there to actually put guarantees around who gets hired in construction projects in our communities. One is we can pay attention to what’s happening. Two is you can read and participate in your own community. Even looking at the recovery money—the amount of money that’s going to come to states and cities for construction and infrastructure—we want to make sure those jobs have conditions for things like local hiring, construction careers, things that will guarantee that people who live in communities that are impacted by them get to work in those communities.


TR: A lot of universities are now offering programs in green business, but access to higher education has always been a problem in African American communities. What are some other ways for blacks to get involved in the industry?

PE: The first is there is $500 million in job training programs and Pathways out of Poverty. So, one, we want to build access to job training programs as part of the recovery. The second thing we want to do is we want create entrepreneurship opportunities. We want to make sure black business owners actually have an ability to be part of this investment right now. The greatest thing about the green economy is that we’ll be making things. Right now, we import so much, but the green economy will find us making things on our own, and that’s a great, empowering things for African Americans to get involved in.


-Cord Jefferson is a staff writer at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.

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