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Green-Collar Jobs and Environmental Justice at Green Fest

by Worldchanging Chicago blogger, Lisa Hodges: Article Photo

Last weekend, Green Festival swept through Chicago, bringing thousands together in a tribute to the growing influence of "going green." While enjoying my saliva-inducing plate of Soul Vegetarian’s barbeque soy bits, I couldn’t stop thinking about one striking difference between this and previous green events in Chicago. A glance down the list of speakers showed several talks focused solely on broadening the green movement to include low-income communities and communities of color.

In Chicago, this inclusion seems particularly important. Issues such as rising asthma rates and lack of access to fresh produce plague much of the city. Expensive green initiatives, such as installing solar panels or switching to a hybrid car, do not address these problems.

Easily the most recognizable speaker on this topic, Van Jones drew a large and enthusiastic crowd. His talk was mainly an expansion of an article he wrote for Conscious Choice this month. He celebrates the growing inclusiveness of the green movement, but implores us to question, "Who are we going to take with us, and who are we going to leave behind?"

For Van, the current environmental movement lies divided sharply between rich and poor. Each have fundamentally different priorities: the rich focus on conservation and lifestyle choices, while the poor remain concerned about basic care all too often denied their communities, such as health care and job creation. The solution, he instructs us, is simple. Create an industry of "green-collar" jobs. Green vocational education should be institutionalized in struggling communities across the country. In order for the green movement to succeed, we must move away from our current course of "eco-apartheid" and work towards broader solutions.

Another panel, "Eco-Justice in Communities of Color," featured Chicago-based activists. Kim Wasserman, an infectiously dynamic speaker, rallied the crowd with her denouncement of Chicago’s coal plants located in the two minority-dominated communities of Little Village and Pilsen. Her organization, Little Village Environmental Justice Organization (in Spanish: "El Viejo," the Old Man), has been a powerful neighborhood force for years. Their impressive environmental health resume includes reducing lead in schools and creating urban agriculture programs. They were also instrumental in campaigning for a bill passed in 2006 to reduce mercury levels at Illinois power plants. Read more about the organization’s successes and current projects at

Kim’s southside counterpart, Tammy Steels, is another neighborhood force. She utilizes her experience in corporate environmental health to build community knowledge and infrastructure to address local environmental health issues. She sums up the main obstacle to grassroots organization in her community (though it certainly pertains to a much larger community) as, "How do you become proactive when community leaders are only reactive?" In communities barraged by instances of violence and joblessness, grassroots activism is reduced to ineffective defensiveness. By organizing youth to create public awareness campaigns, she helps to educate her community and point out the fundamental importance of environmental health to the overall success of the community. Support her organization, Urban Sustainability Authority, in their second annual fundraiser May 5.

There has been much talk lately of the mainstreaming of the green movement. These talks remind us of the breadth of issues touched by environmentalism, and how we have to change our thinking to ensure that we are serving our communities as a whole. They were a welcome, and essential, presence at Green Festival.

For those of you that missed Green Festival, never fear. Recordings of all speeches should soon be online at

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Thanks for covering this. It is easy for us (WorldChanging audience) to overlook the justice issues as they effect poor communities in general and, overwhelmingly, minority communities in specific. Please help keep this on our radars.

Posted by: Stephen A. Fuqua on 30 Apr 07



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