04/17/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Michelle On The Mall

One of my favorite events, every two years, on the Mall is the Solar Decathlon (coming again this fall). 20 or so university teams from around the world competing to have the most attractive and most functional off-the-grid, solar powered home possible.

Well, it won't be 20 teams. And, it won't be a house that I'll be salivating to move into. Yet, today was an event meriting the same sort of excitement and attention. Today, over 100 students and graduates from YouthBuild USA programs around the country showed off green building techniques on the Mall and, in a tent next to the building going up, took seminars about green building-related practices (event program (pdf)).

This 30-year old program YouthBuild began when East Harlem youth were asked a question: what would you want to do if you had adult support? The answer: take back abandoned buildings from drug dealers, rebuild them, and give them to homeless families.

[Time for an editorial pause. There are a lot of good people out there doing good things. One of the joys about the web's "tubes": the ability to learn about and share knowledge of good people doing good things.]

YouthBuild has grown from those roots into a nation-wide program.

In YouthBuild programs nationwide, low-income youth ages 16-24 work toward their GEDs or high school diplomas while learning job skills by building affordable housing for homeless and poor people. About 90 percent of YouthBuild students have quit high school, and 40 percent have been through the court system. Emphasizing leadership development and community service, YouthBuild creates a positive peer group to compete with the lure of the streets while developing new young leaders who have transcended poverty in America's poorest communities. In 30 years, 84,000 students have built 18,000 units of affordable housing and have transformed their lives and communities.

And, Youth Build is amid a shift (to the better ... see below) amid a massive expansion.

As to expansion, President Obama has a proposal to build the program from 8,000 to 50,000 annual participants. The American Recovery and Reconstruction Act (ARRA) (the stimulus package) had $50 million for the program.

This expansion will occur amid a greening of the program, with an increasing emphasis on green building techniques. More than 120 YouthBuild staff have received training in "green construction". The program targets that, by no later than 2013, at least 75 percent of Youthbuild homes will be "green homes" [editorial note: no, not certain of definition of "green" but they are planning to have at least half of these certified by third-parties against national standards, such as the Green Building Council's LEED program).

The Mall activities were split between putting up a frame for a 'green' home and a "Green Academy" in a neighboring tent. In the "Academy", YouthBuild members and others had activities related to green building, green-collar jobs, green schools, energy responsibility, and environmental awareness. As a great and truly green example, the National Association of Former Foster Care Children of America had a training space for the Rooftop Sustainable Horticulture Program with a hands-on chance to learn how to plant rooftop gardens which enable urban residents to have their own 'organic' vegetable options (saving money, improving health, and reducing environmental impacts).

As for the home? On the Mall, the YouthBuild team framed the walls. Other YouthBuild members will put the house up in a low-income area of Brownsville, Texas, where it will be the first of 85 "affordable green homes" for the neighborhood. And the soon to be proud homeowner: Merary Rios, a single mother who works two jobs and whose mobile house was damaged last year by Hurricane Dolly.

[As stated above, good people doing good things ...]

The YouthBuild team will not be alone on the Mall. First Lady Michelle Obama joined the effort, bringing visibility to the expanding program and, we hope, to its shift toward a 'greener' approach in line with the Green Jobs focus. And, Members of Congress (such as Senator John Kerry and Representative John Lewis) will also join the effort.

We can all

help make


Energy Smart.

Ask yourself:

Are you doing

your part to


Today, Michelle Obama answered that question, hammer in hand. Can you?

For a discussion of one YouthBuild speech, see YouthBuild-ing Inspiration.