Shades of green

The Green Issue: Will SF really use its federal 'green jobs' money to lift up working class communities?
Guardian illustration by Danny Hellman

When President Barack Obama signed the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act in mid-February, folks across the country were hopeful that the $787 billion stimulus package would help preserve and create decent jobs in their communities.

And in mid-March, when the Obama administration announced that Bay Area social justice activist Van Jones was joining the White House Council on Environmental Quality, advocates for green jobs took it as a sign that Obama shares Jones' belief that we can fix our nation's two biggest problems — excessive greenhouse gas production and not enough good jobs for the working class — by creating a green-collar economy.

Jones cofounded Oakland's Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, which opposes police abuse and promotes alternatives to incarceration, and founded Oakland's Green for All, which aims to create green-collar jobs in low-income communities. He defines a green-collar job as "a family-supporting, career-track job that directly contributes to preserving or enhancing environmental quality."

"Think of them as the 2.0 version of old-fashioned blue-collar jobs, upgraded to respect the Earth and meet the environmental challenges of today," Jones wrote in his New York Times bestseller The Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems (HarperOne, 2008).

But is Jones' definition codified into Obama's Recovery Act? And in San Francisco, where Mayor Gavin Newsom speaks incessantly about green jobs and regularly praises Jones, will the jobs we create be for the people who need them most? And how will that play out in a city where blacks, Latinos and Asians experience higher unemployment, poverty, and incarceration rates than whites, and building construction has stalled, pitting skilled union workers against training program graduates?

Last month, an alliance of community and worker organizations from San Francisco's working class neighborhoods sent a letter to Newsom outlining concerns about the Recovery Act's equity, job quality, and transparency requirements.

Antonio Diaz of PODER (People Organizing to Demand Environmental and Economic Rights), Alex Tom of the Chinese Progressive Association, Steve Williams of POWER (People Organized to Win Employment Rights), and Terry Valen of the Filipino Community Center asked Newsom to ensure that ARRA funds would be used to create "green jobs and opportunities primarily for low-income people and people of color" and "high quality jobs with family-supporting wages and benefits, safe and healthy working conditions, and career ladders."

"We ask for your commitment to greater transparency and community input in shaping and monitoring the infusion of ARRA funds for San Francisco's developing green collar economy," they wrote.

Two weeks later Newsom announced the launching of, a Web site that seeks to track stimpack funds coming to San Francisco. Although the Web site shows that $150 million of the first quarter-billion of formula funding is headed toward infrastructure projects, it does not include estimates of the numbers of green jobs created.

Wade Crowfoot of the Mayor's Office told the Guardian that the city is focused on ensuring that green jobs are created with these funds and that the City Attorney's Office is figuring out what is "allowable" under Recovery Act's guidelines.

On April 3, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget issued a 172-page memo outlining the Recovery Act's policy goals.