Yesterday in Memphis, a crowd stood outside the Lorraine Motel to quietly honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the place where he died 40 years ago. All day long, it rained.
A couple blocks away, another sort of commemoration was going on. There was chanting. A man played a drum and a choir sang. There was lots and lots and lots of clapping.
Several hundred people had gathered in a conference room to kick off The Dream Reborn, a weekend-long event designed to ignite discussion and collaboration among leaders of the green jobs movement.
Green jobs have gotten a lot of attention lately, but in case you haven’t caught the buzz, here’s the idea: Green industries, including everything from solar panel manufacture to community garden construction, are creating thousands of new jobs. The green jobs movement is helping poor people find those jobs and use them to break out of poverty.
Majora Carter, founder of Sustainable South Bronx and a leading voice in the movement, explained it like this: “America must be green for all. We believe that the transitional green economy should be used to move people out of poverty, so our country can finally set the example on how to treat people with dignity and protect the earth at the same daggone time!”
Not long after she said that, Carter told us all to stand up and chant with her: “Green jobs not jails, parks not prisons, we won’t stop till everybody listens.”
The conference was organized by a group called Green for All, founded last year by Van Jones, a long-time human rights activist who started the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland, Calif., in 1996. Green for All has a radical goal: to raise a billion dollars for green-collar job training, and in doing so, to pull 250,000 Americans out of poverty.
When Jones and his colleagues took the podium yesterday, they quoted King over and over again, explaining that he died in Memphis not only while protesting racial discrimination, but while speaking out against injustice in labor practices. It wasn’t just about race that day. It was about poverty, and that’s a problem that’s as pressing today as it ever has been.
More than a thousand people have come to Memphis this weekend to figure out how to use green jobs to end poverty in this country. Exactly how they’ll do it isn’t quite clear. Yesterday felt a lot like a warm-up; it was as if all of us were in a giant huddle before a big game. The singing, the chanting, the clapping. Some people hugged each other. Others cried.
At the end of the day, Jones stepped to the podium. “Stand up everybody,” he said. “We need a power clap! Come on!” And the clapping rose, faster and faster and faster, to a crescendo of shouting and cheering.
On a day when millions remembered an end, this group was also celebrating a beginning.
Today, things get serious. People will break out into nearly 20 workshops. But before that, Jones will pull everybody together to address a question: Why green jobs now? I’m looking forward to the answer. It’s game time — and I’ll have a half-time report for you tonight.
[Editor’s note: Read Walters’ second report from the Dream Reborn conference.]