By Susan Richardson
As Nicholas Lemann explains in The Promised Land, the advent of the mechanical cotton picker in the 1940s displaced black sharecroppers, adding to the Great Migration of African-Americans from the South to the North. Technological changes have always had an economic, social and racial impact. Today, as we face another economic shift – this time from an energy inefficient industrial-based economy to a more green-collar economy – advocates want to ensure that people of color do not become the sharecroppers of the new economy.
The issue was raised by an audience member at the "Good Jobs/Green Jobs" panel sponsored by Blacks in Green (BIG) at this weekend’s Green Festival. The panel took aim at how to create economic opportunity in communities that have been damaged by disinvestment and have seen job programs come and go. In the African-American community, unemployment figures far outpace the national average. As several panelists stated on Saturday, there is a need for jobs, but not jobs that are “a bridge to nowhere,” as BIG’s Naomi Davis said. Rather, there is a need for well-paying, skilled jobs, and, more important, business ownership in the green economy.
Linking stewardship of the physical environment to the “more built environment,” as Terry Keleher, of Applied Research Center, said, is critical to help communities of color benefit from green-related opportunities. His organization has created a “Green Equity Tool Kit," outlining principles, standards and models for creating job programs and opportunities. Ald. Will Burns (4th Ward), a former state representative, talked about a state-sponsored weatherization program that will allow urban residents to be trained in caulking, weather-stripping and other skills to help make residences more energy efficient. He describes the program as a “ladder to opportunity.”
Former Chicago City Council Member Manny Flores emphasized that green advocates working in communities of color don’t have to wait for the government to act on their behalf. Economic opportunities have come about “because people like us have banned together to take advantage of opportunities,” Flores said, adding that neighborhoods should be “laboratories of innovation,” where new green enterprises can be incubated.
Austin Polytechnical Academy & Center for Polytechnical Education is taking that approach. The Center’s Erica Swinney-Stein explained how the school on Chicago’s West Side trains youth to work for and own advanced manufacturing companies. There are several companies that occupy very specific niches -- for example, providing parts for wind turbines or hybrid cars – that cannot find qualified employees. Some of the businesses end up closing because they cannot find anyone to replace the aging owners, Swinney-Stein said. Austin Polytechnical isn’t just teaching kids skills, the school is also teaching them to “think entrepreneurially,” she said.
That will help people of color become the owners, rather than the sharecroppers, in the green economy.