Shawn H. Mungin did not really know what green-collar meant when he decided to turn his life around. After serving a six-year prison sentence, he felt distant from the ever-evolving culture, and had no reason to think he would be a part of anything called the green economy. That all changed one night last winter at the Henry Street Settlement House on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where a guest speaker inspired him to embark on a new journey.

Mungin, 33, had been seeking a way to recover his pride and the respect of his family. He also sensed a need to connect with something larger than himself – something that would allow him to make a positive contribution to society. The transformative speaker came from an organization that provides workforce training to people with significant employment barriers – and that training, of late, has become focused on green-collar employment. The speaker, Emmanuel Pacheco, a program coordinator from Strive in East Harlem, left Mungin feeling that a career in green construction offered a chance to change himself while, in some way, changing the world.

At about the same time, East Harlem resident Shaunteé Linnen was looking for a way to push her life out of second gear. She was also seeking direction and new challenges. But unlike Mungin, she has been green-minded for most of her life. Linnen, 29, became fascinated with science as a high school student at the Academy of Environmental Science in East Harlem, learning about plant stewardship and attending environmental programs at the United Nations.

Yet Linnen’s interest in the environment remained disconnected from professional aspirations. She was skeptical about whether her passion for the environment could create a practical pathway to a better life. Her participation in Strive’s green construction program, where she met and became friends with Mungin, changed that outlook completely.

Thus far, they have spent seven weeks gaining job readiness skills while learning about weatherization, asbestos abatement, LEED certification, energy efficiency, photovoltaics, and many other concepts that are intended to furnish a well-rounded understanding of the green construction industry.

Mungin, Linnen, and several other students attended a press conference last month where the EPA announced that it would be contributing $200,000 to Strive in a competitive grant that is aimed to assist brownfield remediation workforce development programs in low-income areas. George Pavlou, the acting administrator for EPA Region 2, said that “when you talk about the environment, it’s not just about the world, but neighborhoods as well.” He said the EPA’s grant is not an isolated gesture, as stimulus funding should soon provide millions of dollars to strengthen community-based workforce training programs oriented to green-collar jobs.
Building Green Consciousness

Students in similar workforce training programs – at Sustainable South Bronx in Hunts Point and St. Nicks in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, for instance – typically come from many low-income neighborhoods scattered throughout the five boroughs. Quite often, these areas – whether located in the Bronx, Queens, or Manhattan – are disproportionately saturated with industry and its accompanying pollutants, which include waste treatment facilities, MTA bus depots, and unused contaminated land. The high asthma rates in Hunts Point, as well as the rows of public housing towers that overlook fuming expressways, also exemplify the ways in which environmental burdens are not shared equally.

“We are the people living in these environments,” said Brandon Ingram, a 20-year-old Strive student from the Bronx who was present during the EPA announcement. “This training offers us a chance to better the community so our kids, and our kids’ kids, can live in a better world.”

Fellow student Richard Bell, who some day aspires to start a free service that would inspect buildings in his neighborhood for pollutants, said his motives for entering the training program were economic ones. Yet it encouraged him to see the connections between the environment, poverty, his community and his personal choices.

Says Strive student Mungin, “It’s all like reading a good book. You open your eyes to issues that you did not see before.”

Broadening the way workers think about the environment is an integral to many green-collar training programs. Strive, Sustainable South Bronx and St. Nicks all weave an environmental justice theme into their curriculums. Annette Williams, director of Sustainable South Bronx’s employment training program, said that it is important to not only “give the students the hard skills, but also the environmental justice interpretation of where they live at, what’s happening in their back yard.”

Sustainable South Bronx uses the Bronx River area as a laboratory to teach planting, pruning, and stream bank restoration; and students who learn these skills – which position them to obtain jobs with city and state parks – are often inspired to organize their own independent initiatives aimed at changing the face of their neighborhoods.

Myles Lennon, a senior policy analyst at the green-collar-promoting nonprofit Urban Agenda, believes that expanding awareness of environmental justice is one of the greatest strengths of the green job movement. “We have the potential to not simply create jobs,” Lennon said. “We have the opportunity to change the way we as citizens interact with the natural environment and recognize our carbon footprint.”

“With the growth of the green economy, we have the opportunity to simultaneously wed a consciousness of sustainability and an inclusion of communities that have been explicitly excluded from economic growth,” he said. “Some of the greatest environmental problems are concentrated in low-income communities of color, and that is where there is the greatest potential for change.”

Green Partners Aplenty

The chances of long-term success for students like Mungin, Linnen, and many others who are in the midst of new green-collar training programs will depend not only on the strength of the programs themselves, but also on larger economic realities. The federal government, New York state and New York City are all making a major effort to mobilize green-collar jobs. Without this assistance, many of these programs would have trouble moving forward.
“The city, through the implementation of PlaNYC and other green efforts, has generated an increased demand for a green-collar workforce,” Andrew Brent, a spokesman for Mayor Bloomberg, wrote in an e-mail. “This includes planting and maintaining one million trees, providing greater support for the remediation of contaminated land (brownfields), maintaining and expanding infrastructure and parks, creating incentives for solar panels and green roofs, retrofitting city government buildings, and working with institutions to retrofit their buildings.”

In addition to the city’s efforts, the federal government is directing massive funding toward initiatives expected to create green-collar jobs. For instance, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act – the stimulus bill – is funding approximately $500 million for New York State weatherization and energy efficiency programs. Furthermore, through the stimulus, the EPA will be able to provide nearly $7 billion nationwide in grants for brownfield cleanup, water quality management, and diesel emission reduction. Funding like this is expected to galvanize programs like Sustainable South Bronx and Strive.

The state has also slated $7 million for a Green Job Corps initiative. This effort was partially modeled after a proposal by NYC Green Pathways Out of Poverty Team, a consortium of organizations led by Strive and the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies. The state’s program aims to subsidize employment and training for individuals with employment barriers, providing them with enhanced opportunities to obtain jobs relating to weatherization, environmental remediation, natural resource preservation and renewable energy.

Elizabeth Yeampierre, executive director of Uprose, an environmental justice organization in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, says that while “green jobs have to be really grounded in local development,” there needs to be strong partnerships between government, business, training programs and environmental justice organizations. The state’s coordinated Green Job Corps plan could create a platform for such partnerships.

The Green-Collar Jobs Roundtable, spearheaded by Urban Agenda and the New York City Apollo Alliance, presents another way to encourage collaboration between different entities. Comprised of 150 representatives from business, labor and community organizations, the Roundtable aims to mobilize a diverse, multifaceted, but integrated green-collar workforce. Their efforts have been well received by the city and state.

Yet despite the momentum already set in place, the idea of building a green economy does have its skeptics. A recent study by Robert Murphy and Robert Michaels, economists at the Institute for Energy Research, concludes that estimates of the amount of jobs that will be created through mobilization of a green economy are overstated. The authors indicate such efforts will saddle the private sector with constraints and merely divert economic resources to more expensive forms of energy.

Lennon from Urban Agenda, who spends nearly every day advocating for green-collar job development, admits that there is some merit to certain criticisms. He also added that without wage standards, many green-collar workers will not earn enough to support a comfortable life for a family. However, he believes that when proper labor standards are put in place, and when federal and state money is directed to the right places, green-collar job development has an immense potential to change many lives while creating an unparalleled socioeconomic landscape.

As for Mungin, Linnen, and all the other students and graduates of green-collar training programs, the success of their careers, and of making real environmental change, remains to be seen. Easy transitions are not expected, and as Linnen noted, “it’s going to take an army of us to get this thing off the ground.”

– Hashim Rahman