In June, the New York State Senate and Assembly passed the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. Once Governor Andrew Cuomo signs it, New York will have set the most ambitious climate targets of any state in the country.
But there remains a sticking point in the law in regards to equity and low-income communities. The climate bill proposed in 2018, which Cuomo referred to as a Green New Deal for New York, had nothing to say on equity. After pushback from climate activists, this one contains vague language around ensuring some benefits go to “disadvantaged communities” — benefits to be decided by a climate justice working group.
As the climate justice working group fleshes out future benefits, one New York City-based program will likely stand out as a model in New York’s green economy. For the past decade, the AmeriCorps program Green City Force has honed a training program, employment pipeline and sustainability efforts focused within New York’s public housing.
In 10 years Green City Force has enrolled 20 training cohorts for 18-24 year olds living in New York public housing and produced over 500 graduates, many of whom transition into green economy jobs, according to Lisbeth Shepherd, the program’s founder and executive director.
Shepherd has long known the importance and necessity of building an inclusive green economy. For one, climate change disproportionately affects low-income communities — and Shepherd knew youth unemployment tends to be highest in those communities.
“It was about connecting the dots between two major issues that cities everywhere face: youth employment and how to engage young people in low income communities, and connecting them to push our cities to sustainability and adapting to a changing climate,” she says.
Shepherd established Green City Force following the passage of the Serve America Act of 2009, which expanded national service programs. It started as a pilot program under the newly-established Clean Energy Service Corps, an environmental AmeriCorps program, with a focus on low-income public housing communities in New York City.
Green City formed a partnership with the New York Public Housing Authority for its first training cohort. Following the pilot, Green City began exclusively recruiting young New York City public housing residents to become AmeriCorps members and commit to a term of service.
The training is a full-time commitment over four to ten months focusing on workforce development and service. Trainees learn about energy efficiency, sustainable building operations and maintenance, urban agriculture and waste management. Then they go out in the field — usually to the city’s public housing — for projects that include education and services for free energy efficiency programs, recycling, composting, urban agriculture and horticulture.
Daniel Silvia and Nordesia Walters-Bowman inspect the produce on Farm Stand day at the Howard Houses Farm, located at a New York City Housing Authority development. (Courtesy Fund for Public Health in NYC)
“Utilities and energy leaders tell us they’re not able to reach low- to moderate-income customers,” says Mara Cerezo, senior program officer for Green City Force. “To us … there’s a real advantage to recruiting folks from low- to moderate-income communities to be able to be the leaders and messengers of what it will take to have a more sustainable New York City.”
Charles Purboo grew up in the Castle Hill Houses in the Bronx. After he received his associates degree in criminal justice and decided not to pursue it, his aunt gave him a flyer from Green City Force. “It was a positive movement for the community,” he says. “I wanted to be a part of that.”
He feels his training went far beyond green energy education: He honed his public speaking skills and began traveling extensively throughout New York City. For service work, he engaged with New York City public housing residents on energy-efficient lighting and recycling; passed out “eco kits” that included shower and sink heads, LED lights and energy saver booklets; and worked on urban farms.
Purboo left training early to take a job with energy company Franklin Energy, which needed employees for a ConEd partnership going door-to-door to install complimentary LED lightbulbs. Franklin Energy has since promoted him to team leader.
Green City Force has maintained an average 80 percent placement rate into jobs for graduates. Since 2017, Franklin Energy has hired 17 Green City Force graduates.
Equitable hiring became an important company goal and part of a larger mission in the face of climate change, says Dave Wolk, senior program manager at Franklin Energy. When it comes to climate change, he says, “it’s going to take everybody to fix this.”
It’s a promising partnership given the lack of diversity in the clean energy economy. Black workers currently fill less than 10 percent of clean energy jobs across the country.
“Employers need to be investing in the workforce that they need,” says Shepherd. “There’s a talent base here [living in New York’s public housing] that exists and needs to be connected to these jobs. And for the program to work, we need cultural sensitivity along with the skills and expertise.”
Purboo says embracing this career path has changed how sustainability fits into his life. “I did not know about being energy-efficient or about recycling” prior to Green City Force, he says.
“The way I’m moving now is different,” he adds. “I’m looking at everything different. Green City Force really changed me.”