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Rachel Walker's Posts

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Markese Bryant: From the mean streets to the green economy

Markese Pic 1When Markese Bryant was growing up in Oakland, Calif., his schoolyard was next to a freeway. He shot hoops at a makeshift court where tattered nets hung from power line poles. His mother died when he was 5. His father was in prison. He was raised by his strictly religious grandmother.

Then in 2005, at age 20, Bryant was arrested for selling crack cocaine. And that, he says, saved his life.

“The truth is, I had too much time on my hands and there were pressures,” he says. “I was coming of age where everyone around me expected me to take care of myself. If someone had come to me with a job or vocational school training, I would have done that. But at the time, none of those options came to me. At that time the option was to sell drugs.”

Jail made his choices clear: Become another black, male, drug-dealing statistic, or follow the rules, stay clean, stop dealing, and go back to school. After two years of passing drug tests and a year at junior college, Bryant was accepted to Atlanta’s Morehouse College, alma mater of Martin Luther King. And then his options multiplied.

He majored in African American studies, picked up Van Jones’s best-selling book, The Green Collar Economy, and had an epiphany: If the environmental movement is an extension of the civil rights movement, as Jones argues, why wasn’t environmentalism penetrating the campuses of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs)?

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In Boston, battling for bikes with (gasp!) civility and kindness

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Boston is infamous for its aggressive, rude, and reckless drivers. Its streets are notoriously narrow, crowded, and pockmarked with potholes. Any Bostonian worth his salt will tell you that traffic lights are nothing but impediments to vehicular progress, and speed limits are just cash-collecting scams invented by government agencies. Beantown residents are masters at running yellow lights -- and those that were recently yellow.

Enter into the chaos a woman whose mission is to shoehorn a space for bikes and pedestrians into the Boston streetscape. Her main tools? Civility and kindness -- uncommon methods for these parts.

Read more: Cities

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Gita Nanden says green design isn’t just for eco snobs

Gita Nanden

It’s one thing to pour money into your shmancy new gazillion-dollar, net-zero eco bungalow. It’s quite another to bring that design -- and the underlying philosophy that “green is good” -- to the multitudes of urban dwellers who are more familiar with subway schedules than they are with LEED certification or the Home Energy Rating System.

That’s where Gita Nanden comes in. The Brooklyn-based architect and co-founder of Thread Collective wants to take green building beyond the pages of Dwell magazine and into the realm of housing projects and urban farms.

“We don’t want to be the progenitors of gentrification,” says Nanden, whose firm recently completed construction on its new green office building, located in Brooklyn’s transitioning Bushwick neighborhood. Rather, she and her partners want to design eco-friendly buildings and spaces that are as likely to house people on welfare as they are to house upper middle class professionals.

Read more: Cities, Food

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Zakiya Harris says communities of color can lead us to a sustainable future

Bethanie Hines

Five years ago, artist, educator, and community organizer Zakiya Harris was at the top of her game. After years of reaching out to disenfranchised communities through her hip hop band, FIYAWATA, the Oakland, Calif.-based activist co-founded Grind for the Green (G4G), a nonprofit designed to engage young people of color in the environmental movement using hip hop, art, and cultural programs. In 2008, she became the first African American regional director of the San Francisco Green Festival, an annual expo on all things sustainable in the Bay Area, from a green careers resource center to vegan cooking demonstrations. In rapid succession, she earned a multitude of accolades (including being named "one to watch" by Grist).

Then the bottom fell out of the economy. Like thousands of other nonprofit organizations, G4G watched its funding tank. Harris eliminated a successful job-training program, cut back on events, and faced a bleak and broke future.

Rather than wilt, Harris, who signs her emails “Forever Forward” and quotes Nelson Mandela on her voicemail -- “It only seems impossible until it’s done” -- did what she does best: She hustled. To lessen G4G’s reliance on government and foundation grants, she acquired a solar trailer -- a bunch of solar panels on a trailer that generate enough power to run solar-powered hip hop concerts and more -- that she then rented out, along with electronic billboard space on the trailer.

Read more: Cities

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New Agtivist: Paul Kearsley’s gardens play by nature’s rules

Back when he was in college, Paul Kearsley was -- well, let’s just say he wasn’t running with the cool crowd. While his classmates were doing keg stands on the weekends, he railed against consumptive American culture. When an Industrial Design professor asked Kearsley’s class to create a surveillance system, his peers designed camera networks for prisons and fancy homes. Kearsley devised a system that could monitor a forest, and the data used to make recommendations on improving wildlife habitat.

“I was on the outside,” says Kearsley, who lives in Bellingham, Wash. “I’d be asking, ‘Do we need a 2012 Honda Civic? What’s wrong with the 2011 Civic? Do we need more phones? What are the resources going into this? Where are they coming from? Who is this action hurting?’ A lot of the dialog stopped at ‘make it look cool,’ and I wanted to know more.”

Then, after graduation, someone lent Kearsley a 1,200-page tome that changed his life: Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual. As he read about a school of design devoted to creating productive, regenerative landscapes and resilient systems that “support life in all of its forms,” he knew he’d found his calling.

Read more: Food

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Alison Gannett: Extreme skier turned climate hawk

Alison with Spot the pig. (Photo by Jim Brett.)

At first blush, Alison Gannett’s sacrifices in the name of fighting global climate change don’t seem all that sacrificial. In 2001, the world champion extreme freeskier gave up helicopter skiing. She sold her snowmobile in 2005. Several years ago, she rejected a lucrative contract with Crocs because of the shoe company’s questionable environmental practices. (She kept her contract with the more sustainable Keen Footwear.) Just recently she turned down a photo shoot in the Alps because the flight over the pond was too much for her carbon footprint to bear.

Go ahead, roll your eyes. (Oh muffin … no heliskiing??) Then take note: Gannett walks the walk when it comes to living green. She and her husband grow their own food on an earth-friendly farm, and she's battled to bring sustainable eats to residents in her rural corner of Colorado. Gannett has also leveraged her personal experience into a business that helps individuals and corporations -- including a few of her athletic sponsors -- reduce their energy consumption by up to 50 percent.

Hers is a story of how a fun hog became a climate activist in order to protect the thing she loves most: winter.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food