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Greening Ghettoes

This morning the Center for American Progress hosted a forum devoted to "Green Collar Jobs," in service of a hybrid message on race, class, and the environment. Van Jones, an environmental activist and CAP's newest fellow, reported for his first day of work fresh on the heels of Thomas Friedman's kingmaking op-ed in last week's NYT. Jones, who deserves extra credit for his post-Katrina civil rights advocacy with the Color of Change, spotlighted his longstanding work with the environment in Oakland, CA, giving "the powerpoint presentation Al Gore would give--if he were black."

Jones' key message was about repackaging the discourse on the environment to reflect on-the ground realities of race and class. These factors, perhaps more than any other, govern access to green-friendly technologies and sustainable development strategies. In case we weren't convinced, the blindingly accomplished Majora Carter--another heavy hitter in the black green movement--opened her speech with a query: The US is five percent of the global population and 25 percent of...what? The crowd guessed basic green benchmarks like carbon emissions and greenhouse gases, but the answer was an attention-grabber--it's the US contribution to global incarceration, buoyed chiefly by the jailing of American minorities.

Exacerbating the jail problem, public health issues like asthma, learning disabilities, and a lack of public culture have all been attributed to environmentally negligent policies in the poorest, brownest parts of New York City. Carter, whose work in the south Bronx has began in the 1990s, lives in a neighborhood pummeled with 100 percent of the Bronx's waste (40 percent of the city's), and some 60,000 trucks churning through the borough weekly. Green space is at a premium. She is currently wrangling with the city for jurisdiction over a site that will either be a public park or a new, 2000-bed prison facility.

The further ghettoization of places like the Bronx and Bedford-Stuyvesant and Chicago's Brown Belt into "regional sacrifice zones"--which support hyperconsumption without environmental protections in return--is a shameful trend the whole nation should work to reverse. Jones and Carter are first brokering a new deal with black and brown America--in the language of civil rights, promising equal protection from the worst of industrialization, paired with equal access to the best of greening America.

Job creation is a key prong of their plans. Because money and power are coming to the growing green economy--and who will get it? Jones strenuously advocates for giving a competitive advantage to people of color living in resource-poor communities, who "didn't have a place in the carbon-based economy" and should therefore be first in line as the new order asserts itself. Sadhu Johnston, another panelist and the Chief Environmental Officer of the City of Chicago (a refreshing revision of the CEO title) touted city training in home weatherizing, green retrofitting of city vehicles and just plain gardening, following the model established by Jones' Green Jobs Corps in Oakland and Carter's Bronx Environmental Stewardship Training in New York.

It is incredibly smart of them to pair "the work that most needs doing with those who most need work." Johnston advocated a system of carrot-giving to companies interested in city contracts, and the organizers on-site aimed to promote real grassroots education inside the greening ghetto. Their concerted hustle to win over both minority groups and major companies is for good reason: Besides minority mistrust of the segregated green movement, there is a real fear of backlash from those who view environmental initiatives as a regressive tax on the poor, or a wasted investment in the same.

But all told, their ideas are extraordinarily refreshing. With any luck the rhetorical divorce between naturally interfacing American problems will soon end. As Jones put it in closing the panel, "We aren't fighting." The whole entourage of government officials, activists and developers marched off to a DC City Council meeting, where their message will presumably translate well. Hats off to the whole crew.

--Dayo Olopade