We’ve heard the rumors and seen the proof about explosive growth in what’s called the new “green economy.” But not everyone’s getting a fair share of the benefits. Verde’s Executive Director, Alan Hipólito talks with The Green Line Series on how to better integrate underrepresented populations into this new green economy, the advantages of a richly diverse workforce and why it’s crucial to the sustainable business movement’s success.
GG: Can you give us an overview of Verde’s programs and what your mission in the community is?
AH: We used to say that our goal at Verde was to connect low-income people and people of color with the economic benefits of protecting the environment. But over time that’s evolved into a broader goal of building environmental wealth in those communities. Environmental wealth coming from traditional, natural resources —like clean air, clean water, uncontaminated land, parks, green spaces and habitat—to environmental technologies—like storm water management, ecoroofs, solar installations, weatherization, etc.—and then lastly a third kind of group which involves knowledge and economic opportunity—so environmental education, job training, jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities.
We build wealth in a community in two ways –through social enterprise, and through outreach and advocacy activities.
GG: We obviously talk a lot about making businesses more sustainable at GoGreen–what’s the missing link in your mind that Verde is trying to address?
AH: If you accept, as I think most folks do, that the definition of sustainability involves a triple bottom line or a three-legged stool—highlighting environment, economy and equity—the sustainable movement has done a pretty good job delivering environmental performance and economic performance, but it does a terrible job of delivering equity. It comes down to the fact that most sustainability practitioners do not wake up in the morning and think about how their activities are going to impact lower income people and people of color. They wake up thinking about how they’re going to make money and protect the environment. They’re lacking that focus and so it doesn’t always happen.
GG: Other than the obvious reasons of fairness, what are the additional advantages to bringing those stakeholders to the table?
AH: There are a number of them. One is, as we’ve seen with climate change legislation, sustainability practitioners don’t have the political numbers to consistently carry or achieve their legislative priorities. That’s a big building block right there in front of them, that’s often completely discounted.
There’s also an intellectual benefit, that’s been documented many times, to having diverse perspectives around the table. Instead of coming from one limited perspective, you have broader perspectives that tend to uplift the entirety of a program or movement. And there are competitive advantages to having a more diverse workforce as well, because we live in a global economy and the nation is getting more diverse over time. Monocultural, monochromatic initiatives and businesses aren’t well poised for success as we go forward.
GG: Do you think it’s possible for us to make the transition to a green economy if we leave behind low-income populations and people of color?
AH: No. Absolutely not. It’s not possible. Some states are majority minority now. How are you going to have sustainability when you leave half the population out? You can’t do that.
There’s a train of thought out there, which recognizes that a lot of sustainability involves adopting practices that low-income immigrant communities never got rid of. So these notions of basic reduction of consumption, and reusing items that have already been purchased, local economies, bartering and exchange, local economic networks, alternative transportation—these are behaviors that low-income immigrant communities use all the time. Granted, some of them are forced upon these communities because of economic marginalization—they can’t afford a car or to dispose of items purchased that could be used again. But there are a lot of sustainable practices that already exist within these communities that the mainstream culture is just trying to reorient itself towards.
GG: How is the green economy specifically suited to provide high-quality jobs to historically underserved populations?
AH: It depends on which people you’re talking about. For adults and specifically adults of a certain age, generally speaking there are more limited career pathways available. A 47-year-old immigrant laborer has less of a chance to become a wetland hydrologist or an environmental engineer as opposed to their son or daughter or granddaughter or grandson, who are exposed to issues of environmental protection or environmental careers early on, and have the opportunity to make decisions about their future that a lot of other people make all the time.
For us, the way we always identify appropriate business avenues is through a combination of market demand–what environmental industries or businesses seem to have demonstrable demand for the foreseeable future—capital needs—how much do these businesses need to get started—and training needs—what are we training people to do and what’s the skill set required for the job. If, given the adult population that we want to serve, it doesn’t make sense for us to be heavy on professional services then we won’t. With the population we’re working with in Portland, you can see why we would have a nursery, and landscape and weatherization contracting businesses based on our populations criteria.
Speaking more broadly, a number of organizations exist at the community level that have begun to develop resources and programs to help take individual community members, who might be underemployed or unemployed, with some or multiple barriers to employment, and provide them with both the support and training necessary so that they can be ready for a long term job or career opportunity in the green economy. We have programs like that which have started up over the last three to four years—which was not happening before—in which we’ve started to see the community-based organizations that serve low-income people, people of color or a given geographic area, really try and figure out how to take somebody from where they are all the way to a good job, that’s going somewhere, at a green business.
GG: What are some of the best practices, methodologies and things that need to happen in terms of legislative support or government support to manifest a shift towards a more diverse and equitable sustainable movement?
AH: I won’t jump into all the things that need to happen in our education system to support the children of low-income families and youth of color, because I’m not really qualified to speak to that—other than to mention that what we try to do is bring them real world examples from their own community that can say: “I’m your neighbor or someone who lives down the street. I look like you and talk like you and I have a green job. I have health benefits and am getting job training. We’re improving your neighborhood. We built that playground over there and planted that tree over here and weatherized the homes on your street—and you can do it too. In fact, you can do things beyond what I can do. The physical work that I do is good and honorable, but you have even more choices. And myself and my partners want to tell you what they are.”
But that’s just a small part of the solution to support disadvantaged youth in our communities. Governmentally and with other organizations, there are two big things. The first is concerning governments, and this is something we work on quite a bit with our partners, where we’re looking for progressive or inclusive public contracting mechanisms. These kinds of best practices are pretty late to come to the sustainable movement. In the past, many people all over the city and country have worked really hard to develop models and practices that help incentivize participation by minority and women owned businesses, support a diverse work force, etc. And those have, to a great extent, happened on large construction projects like stadiums and skyscrapers.
These practices are late to come to sustainability for a lot of reasons, although we’ve started to see a change in that over the last couple of years. But if environmental policy makers—who are trying to incent the growth of an ecoroof industry or the green building industry, or who are trying to bring the Oregon Sustainability Center to life—if they adopted progressive and inclusive contracting practices they would make a big difference in the economic lives of low-income citizens and people of color in the community, not to mention the businesses that employ them. When government comes to the market place it can make a big difference and government is certainly coming to the marketplace around sustainability.
The other thing that I’ll say is that one of the challenges that has existed in connecting disadvantaged community members with good, green jobs that are going somewhere, is the current and historical disconnect between these communities and the environmental movement. So, for example, there are people in the community and at community-based organizations who know all about these inclusive contracting practices and all about designing a job-training program to meet the needs of a certain employer or sector. They know how to create public contracting models that would incent and employer to hire a diverse workforce—but they don’t know a lot about sustainability. They generally don’t know a lot about the specific job skills that are required for a particular green business or sector.
On the other side of that divide are the business owners and industry advocates. There are folks who know everything you every possibly want to know about how to fund, build and operate a bio-fuel facility or to grow the alternative fuel industry in the region or the state. They know everything about ecoroof design and construction, and what kinds of public policies would encourage further ecoroof use in the region. But these practitioners, correspondingly, don’t know much at all about how to create jobs for low-income people and people of color.
What we see is a real need to bring those two arenas together—the people who know how to create jobs and know how to train people with the sustainability practitioners who know what kind of job their businesses are going to need and know what is driving demand for these jobs.
GG: If I’m a business owner, and I want to integrate progressive and inclusive hiring practices into what I’m doing. What are some things I need to start thinking about and resources to reach out to in order to start the process?
AH: Obviously, we’d encourage you to reach out to us, but only because we’re part of a larger group of community-based organizations from the Native-American community, the Black community, the Latino and immigrant communities—and we’ve come together to design a comprehensive training pathway to connect our residents to good green jobs. Together with the workforce system, trainers, apprenticeship programs and some employers, we were awarded a $4 million Federal grant to further design this pathway. So if an employer knows they will have a need for four weatherization technicians and six solar installers, and so on—then that’s the arena to engage, because we’re designing the training to meet the needs of the employers.
Alan Hipólito is the Executive Director of Verde, a Portland-based non-profit working to provide green career opportunities to disadvantaged citizens and communities. He’s also a featured speaker at the GoGreen Conference 2010 in Portland, Oregon on October 5, 2010. The conference is next Tuesday + GoGreen 2009 sold out, so register for GoGreen Conference 2010 Portland soon to join us: http://www.portland.gogreenconference.net/registration.
To learn more about the awesome work going on at Verde: http://www.verdenw.org