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. (Prices start at $10,000 for a three-month campaign.)

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free. All donations DOUBLED!

In 2010, Harris co-founded Earthseed Consulting, which partnered with Toyota on the carmaker’s Green Initiative. In addition to traveling to the deep South to give workshops on environmental job opportunities to African American colleges, Harris and her business partners helped integrate an environmental curriculum into the San Francisco Unified School District, produced an original urban green living television series, and trained youth to produce the Bay Area’s largest solar-powered hip hop music festival. (Yes, there are several of them.)

“This is a population that’s being left out of the environmental conversation,” Zakiya says. “I’m telling them, ‘You are an environmentalist whether you realize it or not.’ How many of them know someone with diabetes or cancer? How many live in an area with pollution or poverty? How many care about those issues? All of them. That’s environmentalism. If they care about an issue, they can find a way to change it, improve it. But no one’s helping them connect the dots.”

Most recently, Harris is working to launch Hub Oakland, an offshoot of the international Hub network, whose mission is to “facilitate the creation of sustainable impact through collaboration.” Harris and a team of mainly women have secured a 13,000-square-foot building with 20 permanent offices, workspace, an art gallery, a commercial kitchen, and a range of programming and workshops intended to give a leg up to aspiring entrepreneurs. The center, slated to open this December, is designed to be a “place of convergence,” says Harris, where green tech entrepreneurs, holistic practitioners, artists, and musicians work alongside one another.

As examples of the kind of enterprise she wants to spark, she points to Back to the Roots, a company that recycles coffee grounds to make high-end mushroom kits sold at Whole Foods and had $8 million in sales last year, and to Terra Cycle, which transforms used Capri Sun packets into purses, backpacks, and wallets. “Those people are literally making wealth out of waste,” she says.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

“Zakiya is fierce, with a lot of passion and energy,” says Galen Peterson, co-director of United Roots Oakland, a green art/media center for young people, and a longtime collaborator with Harris. “She always makes sure that communities that are overlooked — poor, black communities — are not only involved, but are brought in a culturally relevant way.”

Along with practical training, those who avail themselves of Hub Oakland’s resources will get a healthy dose of Harris’s gritty optimism. No one is more situated to dominate the environmental field than inner city communities of color, she says. “The urban, hip hop scene sets the trend for cool,” says Harris. “Once we decide to make something a movement, we’ve got the platform.”

The trick, she concedes, is convincing the hip hop generation that they are in the driver’s seat.

“I can’t go into poor, inner city communities talking about, ‘Woe is me, the polar caps are melting.’ They tell me, ‘We already got problems, drama, and issues.’ So I focus on the positive. I show them they can create their own path.

“I believe in the people, the Earth,” Harris says. “I believe in the people’s ability to turn this around.”