Jennifer Oladipo is a writer from Louisville, Ky., whose recent Orion article “Global Warming is Colorblind“ was just reprinted in Utne Reader. She was in Memphis last weekend to see firsthand what the green jobs movement is about. (To read more Grist coverage of the Dream Reborn conference, see Pat Walters’ dispatches from day one and day two.)
The hopeful skeptic in me was the part most drawn to The Dream Reborn conference hosted by Green For All last weekend in Memphis. So once I arrived, I stuck to what I deemed the practical path, sessions with titles like “Show Me the Money” and “Green-Collar Job Training Programs: Examples and Models” that would delineate exactly how to make this green economy happen.
Although I didn’t attend sessions explicitly linked to civil rights, in other ways the conference kept true to its implied promise that it could effectively and sincerely link the green collar jobs movement to the one personified by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The decision to hold the conference on the 40th anniversary of King’s death — in the very city where he was gunned down — spoke volumes for the weight organizers had hoped the conference would carry.
The faces of green
King references and quotes, though often inspiring, were expected. What I found more potent was a simple glance around the room. Organizers had hoped 70 percent of attendees would be people of color, and eyeballing the plenary sessions, it appeared that they were dead on.
The audience was dappled with faces that looked white, Latino, black, American Indian, Asian, and plenty of others who reminded me that you can’t always tell by looking. Young people who looked about college age were everywhere, faces not normally associated with large-scale economic policy change or with the ongoing civil rights work that is still so often tied to the efforts of a leader 40 years dead.
Not only did such diversity characterize the audience but the speakers as well. Several took on a speech-cum-sermon format not common in environmental circles, but certainly familiar to people who have attended black churches or heard speakers of that tradition. Physiological and stylistic distinctions aside, panelists also displayed social and geographic variety. They discussed their work greening infrastructure in urban areas like Chicago and south Los Angeles, fighting mountaintop removal mining in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia, farming organic peanuts in the Georgia foothills, and constructing wind turbines on northern Minnesota’s Ojibwe reservation.
During the opening session on the second day, a group of six panelists somehow segregated themselves as they approached the stage, so the blacks among them ended up seated on one side of the podium. “Oh no, we can’t have this,” said Van Jones, Green For All’s founder and president, who stood at the podium. He asked panelists to shuffle themselves while cracking jokes about how bad it would have looked on YouTube. Laughter continued as the group unintentionally self-segregated again — this time by gender — and Van said that wasn’t good enough either. It was an amusing couple of minutes, but also served to illustrate of some of the essential elements of the green jobs movement that I came to understand throughout the weekend. It’s going to take suppressing some learned impulses. It’s going to take a keen eye for greenwashing. And it’s going to take a little shifting and re-shifting until they get it right.
Nuts and bolts
Jones and other speakers reiterated several times that this nascent movement has several components. A recurring theme in the sessions I attended was encouragement for entrepreneurs and activists to gain a deep understanding of how their communities work and how their governments spend, finding the cracks that could fund green jobs.
It struck me that the organizations that had mastered this strategy (in one case, to the tune of half a million dollars) often grew out of a person’s day-to-day experience with an environmentally hostile reality. Tied as much to environmental justice as conservation, if not more so, this conference offered stories of people like Bracken Hendricks, who decided to become a force for change after working with hazardous chemicals on a construction site, and LaDonna Redmond, whose commitment to organic foods for her food-allergic son — bought at pricey health food stores — opened her eyes to the food desert that kept others in her community from having access to healthy foods.
I also saw that the green jobs movement will depend on the same sort of reframing we’ve seen in the larger environmental movement. Many presenters were using green economy as a way to further the causes they’d championed for decades: issues like labor rights, ending poverty, and community revitalization. Supporters say that truly green jobs can’t be outsourced, are available to the poor, provide living wages, and vitalize communities. The clear message was that the green jobs movement is like a speeding train on which everyone has a seat. In fact, several sectors of society must do just that if crucial high-level policy change is to occur.
Presenters reiterated that those who get onboard right now will shape this emerging movement. Listening to some attendees, the practical focus of green jobs was a shot in the arm for longtime environmentalists feeling the pressure to achieve rapid, massive change. Others who’d never heard of green jobs found it an entrée into a larger movement they’re only just beginning to approach. I saw it as a step toward linking so many elements of the environmental movement that have thus far been moving in parallel but not always in union.
Those include conservation, policy, technology, environmental justice, and racially divided subsets of each. Green collar jobs advocates throw economic justice into the mix, asking us to look at environment through an economic lens and the economy through an environmental lens. They want it all mixed up, like that multiracial, dual-gender panel. The conference offered an extraordinary number of networking opportunities, including open spaces for attendees to teach their own sessions, clearly an effort to realize such unity among disparate interests. That, more than anything else, might have been its best offering toward honoring Dr. King’s legacy on the anniversary of his death.
Jennifer is currently helping to implement Gaia Ecovillage Design Education in her neighborhood and having a pretty good time of it. Find more of her work at www.jenniferoladipo.com.