Green City: Saving people and the planet

Widespread attention for Oakland's Green Jobs Corps
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GREEN CITY The average young person doesn't pay much attention to things like wind turbines and energy efficiency. Friends and family, yes. School or work, sure. Green technology? Probably not. And for youths in underserved communities, where violence and economic hardship are a backdrop for everyday life, the likelihood of thinking green is even lower.

Enter activist groups like the Oakland's Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, and watch as things begin to change. Under the leadership of cofounder Van Jones, the Ella Baker Center has received widespread attention for its role in the development of the Oakland Green Jobs Corps program, set to begin in early 2008.

The Green Jobs Corps will provide training opportunities for hard-to-employ populations (read: at-risk youths, low-income people, and those formerly incarcerated) while supporting the development of a greener economy. It's no small task. For decades the environmental community has looked for ways to make green relevant to marginalized communities. And it hasn't been that successful. Ian Kim, campaign director for the Green Jobs initiative, says the program is significant in that it bridges the gap between the environmental and social justice movements.

"The connections are obvious once you start to look at them," Kim told the Guardian. "Just as there are no throwaway resources or species, there are no throwaway people or communities."

The Ella Baker Center has worked closely with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers to anchor a larger coalition of activists called the Oakland Apollo Alliance. Together, these groups are propelling the initiative forward. The collaboration is a significant one. Historically, labor activists and environmentalists have been at odds. The assumption: there can be good jobs or a clean environment, not both. Victor Uno, a spokesperson for the IBEW, says that dynamic is changing.

"We think it's important to partner with community groups, and we need alliances with environmental groups," Uno said. "Economic growth is going to mean green jobs, and we're working together to create opportunities for people who have been historically locked out."

The Green Jobs Corps program received $250,000 in seed funding from the Oakland City Council in June — part of $2.3 million of unspent settlement funds the city received after the California energy crisis nearly a decade ago. The program will be administered through Oakland's Community Economic Development Agency, and job training will focus initially on renewable-energy technology and efficiency — a requirement of the settlement funds. Forty young men and women are expected to participate in the nine-month program, which includes six months of training, a three-month paid internship, and services like case management and job placement. Kim says the likelihood of participants obtaining well-paying jobs afterward is good.

"Green-collar employers have jobs that pay a living wage, have benefits and good working conditions," he said. "They offer career ladders and real pathways out of poverty."

While recruitment for the program has not yet begun, Kim is aware that the initial draw will likely be the word job and not the word green. Still, it's progress.

"There's no shortage of people looking for job training," Kim said. "It's within the course of the program that they'll receive education about environmental awareness and sustainability. We need to educate people where they're at."

Late last month the Ella Baker Center took the Green Jobs training initiative to the national arena by launching the Green for All campaign.

"We have definitely realized the green job idea is too big for one organization or one group," Kim said.

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