Omar Freilla returned to the South Bronx in the late 1990s with a master's degree in environmental science and a mission: to plant the seeds for a greener and healthier community than the one in which he grew up.
The 37-year-old founder and coordinator of Green Worker Cooperatives, an incubator of worker-owned, eco-friendly businesses, didn't always have this vision. As a graduate student at Miami University of Ohio, he imagined himself heading to Africa or Latin America after graduation to do sustainable development work. But he decided to alter his plans after hearing a woman speak about environmental justice issues facing a black community in Florida.
"It hit me that the community I came from was just like all of those other places that I would be going to. The South Bronx was basically an underdeveloped country within a country," Freilla told The Huffington Post. "If I was going anywhere, I needed to go home."
Freilla recalls at age 10 looking across the highway from his family's apartment at the abandoned buildings and realizing that commuters passing through the highly trafficked corridor of New York City saw a more pleasant picture: the buildings' vacancies were masked by paintings of silhouettes.
That stuck with Freilla, who also recognized early that companies used the low-income community of color as a "dumping ground," with waste facilities, sludge operations, distribution centers and power plants in close proximity. What's more, a lot of goods were simply trucked through, choking residents with diesel fumes.
Among other health problems that might be attributed to this "environmental racism," noted Freilla, are exceptionally high asthma rates: an estimated 12 times the national average.
So with his acquired knowledge and expertise in the environment and social justice, Freilla returned to his roots. And after stints as a transportation coordinator at the community-based New York City Environmental Justice Alliance and working with Sustainable South Bronx, he launched the Green Worker Cooperatives in 2003.
"I wanted to see jobs in our communities that promote life instead of taking it away," Freilla said.
But before residents could take up these kinds of jobs, he knew they needed businesses to house them.
"If history is our guide, businesses that will exist in this green economy will be businesses that operate and grow in places where there is already the capital and resources. That doesn't exist in places like the South Bronx," explained Freilla. "It takes a special effort in communities on the margins to be able to grow these kind of businesses."
He pointed to worker ownership as the key, ensuring that the generated wealth actually stays in the community.
Freilla's first step towards this goal was to create a training ground for future "green collar" workers: the Green Worker Cooperatives' Coop Academy. The 16-week training course aims to turn green business ideas into reality, teaching everything from how to get a loan to where to find the connections to create a website.
As Freilla gets ready for this fall's new class, Coop Academy alumni are already using the skills gleaned from his program to improve their community. A green catering company, B-Blossom, offers locally grown foods along with biodegradable cutlery, while going beyond their business to promote greater access to healthy foods across the Bronx.
Jon Santiago, a 2009 graduate of the Coop Academy, now leads HTINK, formerly STEM Together, which develops a hands-on curriculum centered around the environment and technology. The company works with more than two dozen area schools in Newark, Brooklyn, Manhattan and the Bronx to help students learn a variety of green skills, including manufacturing and urban agriculture, as well as how to deploy renewable energy technologies such as wind and solar.
"We're getting kids excited about making and building, with a real focus on sustainability," said Santiago, 27, a native of Brooklyn. "If we can make our consumer goods here versus overseas, that can also help shrink our carbon footprint."
Freilla has recently received interest from new teams that aim to start up all manner of projects, from weatherizing homes and offices to turning vacant lots into urban farms.
"I want to make sure that the Bronx becomes a mecca for worker-owned green businesses that can serve as a model of how a community can take over its own finances, promote health and improve environmental conditions," said Freilla, adding that the program could be easily adapted to other disadvantaged areas such as parts of New Orleans, Detroit and Los Angeles.
"The Bronx doesn't need another McDonald's," he said, "especially if we have people out there doing green catering."