Six years ago, Johnny Mao and his fellow colleagues at Got Green, a climate justice organization in South Seattle, wanted to answer a crucial question: What needs to happen to get more young people involved in the environmental justice and climate justice movements? They scoured coffee shops, grocery stores, and schools in South Seattle asking anyone who was willing to answer.
The resounding response they received was this: In order to get involved, people needed to “put food on the table first.” That meant having financial stability that would allow for financial security. For many low-income people of color, systemic barriers make that stability hard to procure, especially in the sustainable, green sector. There are plenty of internships and volunteer opportunities, but they rarely lead to long-term jobs with living wages.
That is how the idea for a new program — the Green Pathways program — came to be. Got Green worked with City of Seattle councilmembers Lisa Herbold and Mike O’Brien to pass a Green Pathways resolution in 2016. The resolution aimed to create hundreds of green jobs that would help young people from low-income communities and communities of color access upwards mobility and career stability through the green sector.
But that has been slow going, said James Williams, Got Green’s Organizing Director. Why?
The resolution said that more than two hundred jobs would be created by 2020. But the number of Green jobs that came out of the resolution is far below the target amount.
To speed up change, Got Green is partnering with Rainier Valley Corps (RVC) to head up the Green Pathways Fellowship.
Florence Sum, program manager for the Fellowship program at RVC said the fellowship is proactive; communities aren’t waiting for the government to come in and create jobs.
“We are not telling bureaucracy to tell communities of color these are the jobs. We are just going to create the opportunities ourselves,” Sum said.
The goal is to place young people of color in salaried and benefited green jobs, complete with leadership development and professional support. Simultaneously, the program will coach and aid host organizations to shift a culture that has historically alienated Black, indigenous and POC communities.
Here is how the program will work. Applicants who are selected will be paired with a host organization. They’ll get training on environmental justice and nonprofit leadership from Rainier Valley Corps with an introductory intensive and will continue to be supported by RVC as they work through their work with the host organization. Simultaneously, RVC will support the host organizations to help transition in their new hires and create more equitable workspaces.
The Green Ceiling: Shifting workplace culture to be more inclusive (and less white)
Creating that pathway means chipping away at the “green ceiling.” Sum has seen the limitations that even the most well-intentioned progressive organizations perpetuate as they try to make a workplace culture that is truly inclusive of all kinds of identities.
Sum is referring to the cultural expectations used to determine whether someone can be successful in the workplace. Since people of color have been largely excluded from the green industry, Sum says they have an extra challenge in meeting that “professional bar.”
“Even if people of color meet [the bar], you have to … have another level of scrutiny as a person of color or anyone who is non-gender binary,” Sum said.
Sum points to everything from clothing and hair, to vocal tone and how passion is conveyed. There is a set expectation for each, based on a working culture that has been monolithically white for decades, and young people of color entering the industry are judged by those particular measurements. Sum says this goes beyond just attire and meeting room behavior to the dominant idea of what a leader must embody — charisma, outspoken extroversion and a go-getter attitude.
“Then there is a piece around this capitalistic framework. You need to produce a ton of work in order to be worthy, in order to be valuable,” said Sum.
All these factors put an immense amount of pressure and layers of hidden barriers on young people who are looking to make a career in a traditionally white-dominated power structure, which includes the world of green jobs.
Environmental justice is economic justice
Sum remembers the subtle conservation ethics practiced by her immigrant family, though they weren’t named as “environmental” practices. Things like saving plastic containers for reuse, gardening, and sharing the harvest with neighbors. While mainstream environmentalism touts such behavior as “environmentally friendly” or “green,” Sum says they are ingrained in communities who need to be thrifty and conscientious to conserve resources … and money.
“We know what it means to impact our environment. We know what it means to impact our dollars at the same time and that is also part of environmental justice,” said Sum.
Environmental justice (EJ) as a concept is important at every level of this fellowship. Not only will fellows be incorporating EJ principles into their work, but Sum says the very design and implementation of the Green Pathways program serves to exemplify what environmental justice can look like.
“Environmental justice is also about an economic shifting of economic power and having living wage jobs to manage their home, expenses, commute, and livelihood in a way that they [people of color and low income people] can feel safe,” Sum said.
That means more conversations with host organizations about job requirements: Is a car necessary? Is remote work a possibility? What about qualifications like being able to lift up to fifty pounds, a common job criterion that apply more easily to able-bodied individuals? Sum says these default bullet points need to change for jobs to be more equitable and accessible to historically excluded communities.
There is another blockade that can stand in the way to making green jobs feasible for young Black and indigenous people/people of color (BIPOC): the practice of hiring unpaid interns. Mao says the fellowship intentionally pushes back against normalizing unpaid internships.
“The free intern model is a way of employers saying that ‘hey we aren’t going to pay you at all because you don’t have any better options,’” Mao explained.
The Green Pathways fellowship operates on the principle that young people should be invested in and given the resources to thrive. They should also be fully compensated for the time, energy, and experiential knowledge they bring to a project or organization.
Mao said rather than accepting what the market currently provides — unpaid internships and low-wage jobs for young people of color — and working within that system, we need to be questioning the status quo.
Mao poses these rhetorical questions to challenge the way the current market functions: Does the market center the voices of young people? Does it provide solutions for environmental justice issues? Does it empower communities?
“We are here to be a vehicle to solve those problems. And we are here to find our own self-determination,” he said.
Mao likens the current environmental movement to a train that is moving on without incorporating the interest, strategies, and skill sets of BIPOC who are so often at the forefront of environmental problems and the effects of climate change.
“Through organizing and finding our own self-determination movements, we have a chance to take this train over,” Mao said, “to reach a destination we want for ourselves … and create a pathway for our youth today.”
While community organizations like Got Green and Rainier Valley Corps mobilize communities and make movements happen, the other side of the change equation takes an internal transformation of environmentalism. Green Pathways hopes to empower and making the environmental sector more accessible for BIPOC young people and the invaluable experiences and unique insights they can bring to problem solving in the green field.
This story is part of a new series on Pathways to Green Jobs by Resource Media to showcase pathways to green jobs for people of color. Last year, Resource Media, Russell Family Foundation, and The Seattle Globalist partnered on “Puget Sound Future-Makers,” a series of stories that recognized the work of diverse leaders in the Puget Sound region in shaping the strength and resilience of our future environment and communities.