Getting in on the Green Ground Floor

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The opportunity we’ve been waiting for is finally here.

African Americans have the chance to get on the ground floor of an economic surge that could give our communities the foundation for long-term health, peace and prosperity.


And it looks like something we’ve been doing for a very, very long time—it just hasn’t been recognized.

It’s the green revolution. The word “green” should be inclusive, and not just geared toward cute animals or rain forests in faraway places.

Most of us have been mixing black and green our entire lives. We’ve all had the grandmothers planting gardens in the backyard, garnishing our dinner plates with homegrown goodness. We know about the Afrocentric herbal shops selling natural hair products, skin lotions and essential oils. I remember my favorite vegetarian soul food restaurant as a child.

Now is the time to take all that black and green living and transform it into economic gain.

See, the rising green tide isn’t just about the environment, or lifestyle. It’s also about the economy. Clean tech and green enterprise are quickly becoming huge growth engines for our economy. You can see it in President Obama’s recovery plan. Of the $787 billion package, about $60 billion will go into green technologies and projects—by far the largest such investment the federal government has ever made.

That investment, and more from the private sector, will generate millions of new jobs and billions of dollars in new wealth. It will create countless opportunities for work, wealth and health. It will put new money in the hands of workers, entrepreneurs and consumers. It will create the core of an entire new economy.


That’s no exaggeration. Right now, oil and coal are at the core of our economy. They power everything we do, from industry to transportation to cooking and keeping our homes warm. They are also among the dirtiest and most dangerous energy sources in the world. A switch to safe, clean, renewable energy—such as solar and wind power—means transforming the very foundation of our economy. It’s not a makeover. It’s a do-over.

This transition will spur new industries and markets, from solar panels and wind farms to green construction and retrofits to new technologies like hybrid cars. Each of those mean business opportunities, jobs, and better products and services for our nation.


That is exactly what the doctor ordered for African-American families. Our communities have had to fight tooth and nail for every opportunity we’ve had in the pollution-based economy. Even so, those opportunities have been skimpy. We have been last in line for jobs, careers and educational opportunities—and first in line to bear burdens like pollution, economic downsizing and social service cuts.

With limited access to opportunities, many of our communities have turned on themselves, further destroying their neighborhoods, homes and families.


But other parts of our communities have created gardens, restaurants and industry to heal the wounds from a pollution-based economy. More recently, black-owned solar companies, food cooperatives and green-training programs have started to widen the playing field for the green revolution. These businesses need investment and support to usher in a new era of green prosperity.

Black Americans need to be leading the charge for the new, green economy. If we help set the ground rules, we can make sure our communities get equal access to the opportunities of the new economy—and equal protection from the burdens of the climate crisis. In all of American history, we have never had a chance to do that.


If we let that chance pass us by now, African Americans just might spend the new century exactly where we spent the last one: locked out of the American economy.

But if we seize this opportunity, we will reap immeasurable rewards. We will have more than jobs, or successful businesses, or new homes, or clean air and water, or any of the most obvious material benefits that will flow from green investment. We will have greater stability, in our homes and in our neighborhoods. We will have the economic strength to match the strength of our hearts and our hopes.


We can finally have the safe, strong, healthy communities for which we have struggled for generations. That is the promise of the green revolution.

Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins is the CEO of Green for All, a national organization building a green economy strong enough to lift people out of poverty.


Dayo Olopade: Black Folks, Green Thumbs.

Majora Carter: City dwellers can save the world.

Dayo Olopade: Seven ways to love your mother (earth, that is).

John Kerry: Making the green movement more brown.

Kai Wright: Why environmental justice isn't enough.

Take a look at the Green Collar Heroes photo gallery.

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