Khepra Ptah had long been a fighter for social and economic justice: jobs and opportunity for low-income people and people of color. Then he joined the Army National Guard, learned the work of post-combat decontamination, and was sent to Iraq, where he saw the effects on children of a landscape laid to waste by war.
Kids swimming in water so contaminated it turned their skin gray. Or born with abhorrent birth defects. The produce of depleted, dirty soil -- apples the size of walnuts -- offered to him as gifts by tiny hands.
It was then that Ptah remembered a friend back home talking about installing solar panels in Africa. The vision posed a question: How could the world's poor get the tools they need to make their communities safe, healthy, and prosperous?
The question remained until, back home and out of work this summer, Ptah met Michael Woo, a longtime organizer with A Legacy of Equality, Leadership, and Organizing at a job fair. Woo brought up green-collar jobs.
"I'm thinking maybe it had something to do with planting gardens or hugging trees, something like that," he says. "Conservation Corps type stuff."
But Woo, says Ptah, "mentioned the key word," which were providing opportunity. I said, 'Hold on a minute, instead of fighting the system and getting nowhere, you mean to tell me that we can provide opportunities to my homeboys Tyrone and LeBarre, and I could hook Tamika up? That's cool.'"
Ptah joined Woo in Got Green?, a project of youth of color mostly from Seattle's diverse and less affluent south end to educate themselves and their peers about the career possibilities of a new, environmentally aware economy. The group, composed of young Black, Asian, and Pacific Islander men and women ages 17-25, installed a photovoltaic panel in Shoreline, visited a wind farm in central Washington, and passed out compact fluorescent lightbulbs in White Center.
Khepra is in the early stages of hooking up friends and neighbors put, by an unequal society, at the back of the line for the good paying jobs. It's Ptah's role to push locally, like Van Jones [interview, page 7] pushes nationally, for the political opening: with law and advocacy to get the next big growth sector in the sights of people who have a hard time getting well paying jobs even in the best of times.
"Green" is a favorite buzzword right now, and what constitutes a green-collar job is still in the works. One entity that's pursuing a definition is the city-county Workforce Development Council, where government agencies, community colleges, and businesses are developing a green-jobs curriculum for energy efficiency employment in residential, commercial, and multifamily buildings.
Matt Houghton, a participant in the council and on staff with the city's Office of Economic Development, projects that two 12-week courses at a local community college could move a student up to making $16-$17 an hour. To complete those 12 weeks, students would have to demonstrate competence in math up to an eighth-grade level. With math, physical fitness, and workplace-safety certifications part of the entry-level pre-apprenticeship course in home energy retrofitting at South Seattle Community College, where one of Ptah's project participants is now enrolled, job training for the green economy looks a lot like job training for the old economy, says Houghton. He also points out that trainees for green-collar jobs in energy efficiency get a peek-a-boo view into career opportunities in more conventional sectors, like cement masonry or electrical work.
The Workforce Development Council's evolution of these classes involves "the coordination of having a policy, filling the demand, and getting low-skill people to meet that demand," Houghton says. "The part that's been the weakest link was consistently and effectively engaging the business community," he says, to gauge its needs. Now, businesses want to be part of the process. "They see that energy efficiency is the next big market," he says. "They're thinking about where they're going to get their next batch of employees."
Ptah, too, has a few recommendations for getting earth-friendly jobs within reach of his peers. The lack of math instruction has historically been the biggest barrier to getting underemployed people into high-paying trades, and the jobs paying $16 or more an hour, according to the Office of Economic Development, require competence in eighth-grade math. Instruction, says Ptah, needs to proceed at a pace that people of color find reasonable. "It's not because they're incapable of doing math but because the school system has failed them," he says.
Ptah and other members of Got Green? are going to be pushing for that class and for other means of accessing green jobs.
Because of stereotypes, folks may "think people who live in these communities are villains," he says, "but I think that, if given the opportunity, you'll see that these are the heroes -- that they can not only help the earth and the economy but put money in their pockets."