Bridging the Gap: Connecting Black Communities to the Green Economy

Bridging the Gap: Connecting Black Communities to the Green Economy took place on April 15th as a one-day pre-conference for the Good Jobs, Green Jobs Conference. The event brought together people from universities, labor organizations, environmental organizations and entrepreneurs, as well as grassroots organizers and policy advocates to develop an action agenda to reframe the green economy in terms of justice and equity.

There are over 111 million people of color in the United States, which represents approximately 30% of the US population of 313,914,040. However, there is significant underrepresentation of communities of color working at organizations that address environmental issues. For example, according to the Center for Diversity and the Environment, 11 percent of the staff and 9 percent of board members working for natural resource organizations are people of color. Approximately 33 percent of environmental organizations and 22 percent of environmental government agencies have no representation of people of color. With regard to the energy sector, according to the Energy, Economics and Environment: Effects on African Americans report by the American Association of Blacks In Energy, African Americans only held about one percent of energy sector jobs in 2004, and the vast majority of those jobs were not in management or executive leadership of these companies. Moreover, African Americans spent $41 billion dollars on energy in 2009 and on average spent a significantly higher proportion of household costs on energy.

The fact that communities of color are missing from the table of setting our energy agenda and working in organizations set up to address environmental issues is evident in the consistent disproportionate impact of environmental injustices, particularly ones related to energy production, on our communities. The design and decision making of our energy landscape reflects the interests of those at the table and often disregards the needs of those who aren’t. Willie Baker of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists believes that environmental issues are local problems with a global impact:

This is not only an African American community problem, this is a worldwide problem. But, we must attack it by first dealing with the problems throughout our communities.

The aim of the Bridging the Gap initiative is to transform this dynamic. Robert Wallace, President and CEO of BithEnergy, sees this conflict as an opportunity to find sustainable solutions:

Whenever you see a problem, there is always opportunity. We, as a community, have to discover a way to create opportunities for ourselves when we see problems throughout our communities.

The green economy has the potential to produce millions of jobs for people of color. With unemployment rate for the African Americans being 13.8 percent which is almost double that of the national average of unemployment, 7.7 percent, the green economy is an opportunity to reduce this chasm. But it must be done right. NAACP Director of the Economic Program Lillian Bowie-Singh believes that Bridging the gap was a place for social activists to share solutions and strategies for mobilizing:

The conference provided a forum for social activists working on issues whether it be policy, research, small business development, grassroots organizing or youth mobilization to develop collective action strategies that will change the game and experience of African Americans in the green economy. The general feeling overall from participants was that if only one of the several strategies discussed is implemented and executed, we have made an impact.

Jacqui Patterson, NAACP Director of Environmental and Climate Justice, says that she receive positive feedback about Bridging the Gap and hopes that the topics discussed will lead to implementing many of solutions developed at the event:

The feedback during and after Bridging the Gap showed the critical importance of this agenda setting strategy session on connecting black communities to the green economy. Now, our next step is to implement the excellent recommendations that were generating on reframing the green economy according to justice and equity based tenets and advancing a framework for action that is inclusive and sustainable.