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A Green and Fair Recovery

Why—and how—to make sure the stimulus creates jobs that are both green and equitable.

Oregon solar power installation

Photo courtesy of the Oregon Department of Transportation

One year has passed since the Obama administration enacted the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), the largest boon to public spending and the safety net since the New Deal. Last week, President Obama linked economic recovery to investments in clean energy and green job creation in his State of the Union address.

More than $200 billion of the stimulus package was earmarked for projects that would either directly or indirectly create green jobs. The second round of reporting by ARRA recipients was made public on recovery.gov last Saturday. But, since equity is not a criterion either for who gets the money or for how recipients report their usage of the funds, we don’t know whether the stimulus has benefited those hardest hit by the Great Recession: people of color and single mothers.

If equity factors prominently into the equation, an expanded green economy has tremendous potential to positively transform our communities, sustain the environment, and lift the quality of all our lives. But this won’t happen by chance.

Across all green sectors, most jobs are held by white men. Blacks and Latinos are employed in less than 30 percent of green occupations. Gender disparities are even more stark: white women are employed in only 5.7 percent of energy sector jobs, black women in 1.5 percent, and Latina and Asian women at less than 1 percent. Recovery funds shouldn’t be used to preserve the status quo, but to create genuine opportunities for people of color and women in the green economy.

This extends to green business ownership: firms owned by people of color have been shut out of loans established by the Recovery Act. New America Media reported that over 91 percent of small business loans went to white-owned companies. Only 3 percent went to Asian- and Latino-owned businesses, while black-owned firms received only 1.5 percent of the recovery loans. Without standards based in equity, the racial disparities in green business ownership are reinforced.

Equity in Action

Equity will also be important in future legislation, such as the climate bill. A coalition of civil rights and environmental organizations led by Green For All secured the eleventh-hour addition of two major provisions (local access to green jobs and nearly $1 billion for green jobs training) to the House version of the American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES). They are working to maintain these provisions in the Senate bill to be debated this year. Such provisions represent an important step toward ensuring equity in the green economy.

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Examples of green equity success stories are emerging: In Los Angeles, a local chapter of the Apollo Alliance, convened by the community organization Strategic Concepts in Organizing and Policy Education (SCOPE), won the passage of a green retrofit ordinance for municipal buildings. It will create high quality jobs for communities of color struggling with the economic crisis. Navajo youth successfully lobbied their tribal council to enact green jobs legislation last summer, which will create job opportunities for Navajo youth and promote locally owned green businesses. And, in New York, grassroots and policy advocates pushed the city to create new rapid transit bus lines to serve low-income communities of color.

The most successful green jobs programs have been designed to benefit women and people of color, and have included clear measurements of success. Without data collection on these indicators to establish a baseline and to measure progress over time, women and people of color will be left out. Specific measures of equity include, but are not limited to, green jobs that provide at least a living wage and a clear pathway for professional development, elimination of employment barriers to people of color (such as those with prior convictions), and qualitative improvements to community and workplace health, safety and environment.

We must work to ensure that equity—gender, racial and economic equity—is central to green principles and practice.

Existing legal provisions must also be incorporated into new green jobs programs and ordinances. Such laws will protect the rights of women and communities of color as they enter the green economy. These include equal opportunity laws, affirmative action provisions, local hiring and training ordinances, wage and hour standards, and safety and health standards.

If equity factors prominently into the equation, an expanded green economy has tremendous potential to positively transform our communities, sustain the environment, and lift the quality of all our lives. But this won’t happen by chance. We must work to ensure that equity—gender, racial and economic equity—is central to green principles and practice. Federal government programs are crucial for funding green equity initiatives, but ultimately the power to advance equity in the green economy lies in local communities.


Yvonne Liu

Yvonne Liu wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Yvonne is Senior Research Associate at the Applied Research Center and coauthor of the just released Green Equity Toolkit: Standards and Strategies for Advancing Race, Gender and Economic Equity in the Green Economy.

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