A gathering of "urban green innovators," as they were called, yielded a crop of optimism about the myriad environmental challenges facing New Yorkers in the coming years. "Count the short-term victories," and "Keep your eyes on the prize," appeared to be some of the main messages from the event, co-sponsored by New America NYC and held at the Museum of the City of New York, on the evening of Monday, April 27. None of the panelists, who represented a diversity sorely lacking within the broader environmental movement, had their head in the clouds when it came to the nexus of ecological, social and economic forces that have left behind neighborhoods.
"There's no better partnership for a discussion connecting environmental activism and environmental justice and the intersection of a whole range of environmental and economic issues," said the moderator, Georgia Levenson Keohane, a senior fellow at New America and the director of the Program on Profits and Purpose, "a new initiative that explores the potential for social entrepreneurship, innovation and finance to address social and economic challenges," as she introduced the panelists.
The first to speak, Peggy Shepard, co-founded WE ACT for Environmental Justice, a 27-year-old community organization that works with, "people of color and low income [people to] participate meaningfully in the creation of sound and fair environmental health and protection policies and practices" in their neighborhoods. Shepard began her path toward activism as a Democratic district leader in West Harlem, when a local sewage treatment plant was soon-to-be built, promising the arrival of much-needed jobs. Through her work, Shepard "got 30 people hired there."
Two months later, the plant started operating, and it became quickly apparent to everyone but Mayor Ed Koch that there was a pollution problem "that was making people sick." Shepard began "an eight-year organizing campaign" to do something about it. Koch told her, "This is a state-of-the-art facility, there's no problem. You and [another state senator] must be imagining all this." After eight years' of work, Shepard won and the plant got cleaned up. In another campaign, her team discovered that the incidence of asthma in Harlem is three times greater than anywhere else in the city. "You really have to be committed to persevere," Shepard said, noting that the campaign toward the MTA to use cleaner energy for their buses took 18 years. Last October, the MTA opened the first "green bus depot" in the country, "a huge win for the community." Right now, Shepard is helping to run a program called Serious Games, which is part of the city government's "climate resilience" project.
Bomee Jung, a self-described "recovering computer programmer," oversees public housing sustainability for the New York office of Enterprise Community Partners, "a national affordable-housing organization" that "delivers capital to affordable housing projects, works on policies that enable development and preservation of affordable-housing projects," Jung said in rapid-fire fashion. Her job is to "identify the best practices that work and use our capital platform and our policy work," in their D.C. office, "to scale up those" approaches. What she aims to do is "help the people who are already at the bleeding-edge of industry do better." Jung identified how Enterprise will "incentivize" developers to build sustainably, adhering to the highest standards for new housing.
"Over the course of, basically, ten years, New York City has gone from having an interest in aligning sustainability and affordable housing to essentially requiring it," Jung said. "It's a testament not only to the work of activists but also the appetite the affordable housing developers have had to really be responsive to situations like the asthma situation."
In the coming years, Jung said:
We're facing an inflection point in the industry where many organizations that have been active in the sector are looking at their 30th, 40th anniversaries, the founding members are transitioning to other things, and frankly, many of them have portfolios that are too small to be economically self-sufficient.
This presents "a big challenge ahead of us, not only an environmental one."
Ashley White directly engaged with those challenges as a recent graduate of Green City Force, an AmeriCorps program, that focuses "on energy efficiency and over-all sustainability." White, currently interning at the Department of Environmental Protection, was in charge of a team in Red Hook, where she helped create a one-acre farm in an area known to be a food desert where rates of diabetes and obesity are high. In a place "where there's a lot of crime and gang activity," White said, the project got people involved, the community taking pride in growing their own food.
As a workshop coordinator, White did "cooking demos to help them eat better, show them better ways to cook the crops" from the farm, and drew in volunteers. "We also had a bartering system," she added. "As we were leaving and transitioning onto another portion of the program, the residents came up and said, 'We really appreciate you guys being here, the kids really loved being here, and there's no drugs, there's no gangbangers in front of our windows,' and it really affected me," White said.
She grew up in public housing in Far Rockaway, and discovered Green City Force as a way of taking on real solutions. "Now I can't even imagine going to beauty school," she said to guffaws. White said she now says to friends, "Hey guys, it's Saturday, let's go composting!" She wants to continue to get more young people involved in the issues that affect them.
Donnel Baird joked about having to follow the testimonies of his preceding panelists. Baird, a venture capital entrepreneur and founder of BlocPower, grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, "back when it was a terrible neighborhood. Saw a bunch of shootings, drug deals gone wrong," Baird said. "One 16-year-old shot another 16-year-old in the face across the street from my sister." After graduating from Duke, Baird moved to Brownsville to be a community organizer, "learning a ton of Saul Alinsky stuff."
After working on the Obama campaign in 2008, Baird took part in the green jobs segment of the stimulus. "If everybody goes back in the time machine to 2009," he invited the audience, amid the financial crisis there was a push for "capital injections" into the economy, and his "assignment" was to "take seven billion dollars [out of the federal stimulus] and combine it with capital from utility companies and Wall Street banks" in order to retrofit 100 million buildings in the country. "Crazy idea, right?" Baird asked rhetorically. "Well, some of it worked, most of it didn't." The particular problem was that the large investment banks "at that time were not prepared to make investments in clean energy at scale."
After seeing Washington fail to take on the mantle of what needed to happen, Baird thought about Silicon Valley. "How do you create a huge portfolio of buildings that Deutsche Bank or Goldman Sachs feels comfortable lending five, ten million dollars to at five or six percent to install solar panels?" Even retrofitting all of the old boilers would make a significant difference, Baird added.
I believe that the key to dealing with climate change in the United States is plumbers and boilers. If you think about it, we're burning all of this fossil fuel upstate, bringing it here, and the boilers are fifty years old. They're causing really high asthma rates in Harlem and the Bronx. It's horrible for parents, kids, the community.
Without "access to engineers and access to capital," landlords cannot cut their own energy bills by fifty to sixty percent, Baird said, and thus cannot "save money, and do something that's awesome for the climate, and do something that will create local jobs in the communities that need it the most." On the way out from the museum, as the sun set, a plastic bag, caught high up in a tree, fluttered uselessly. There's a lot of work yet to be done.
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