Claiming a spot in the morning sun, four 20-somethings grab a smoke in a packed-dirt lot near the intersection of Agua Fria Street and St. Francis Drive. Autumn has just shaken a stick at summer, and the four stamp their feet, complaining about the cold. Slabs of wood lie across a portion of the yard; portable metal buildings stand as the only testament to the failed public school that once claimed this lot.
Though it's not physically far from the Plaza, this spot of land has a distinct vernacular from the city tourists experience. There is graffiti nearby, and pockets of young people—puffy sport jackets and caps askew—linger here and there, popping out of the portables and calling out to one another.
But a closer look at that dirt lot reveals newly planted saplings and native grasses. Those slabs of wood are the beginnings of a shade structure. And those four young people represent the ¡YouthWorks! energy crew.
The nonprofit YouthWorks offers job training to disadvantaged and at-risk youth. Specifically, young people work on projects such as river restoration and green building. For their part, Lauren Herrera, Javier Gonzales, Jose Miguel Olivas and Daniel Padilla make low-income houses more energy efficient—insulating hot water heaters, weatherizing doors and windows, and replacing aerators on shower heads. They also take cutting-edge environment and technology classes at Santa Fe Community College.
As they finish up their smokes, the group's conversation turns to Van Jones, President Obama's special advisor for green jobs. Unlike most Americans—who learned Jones' name only after he resigned in early September under pressure from right-wing conservatives—these four are familiar with what Jones was trying to accomplish.
Before joining Obama's White House team, Jones had pioneered work that emphasized green jobs, racial and economic equality, and public-private partnerships. With support from the Clinton Global Initiative, Jones also had launched Green For All, a national campaign focused on using green jobs as "pathways out of poverty."
The news that Jones was ousted from the Obama administration came as a surprise—and a disappointment to the energy crew. But there's no time to dwell on that blow. They have work to do, after all.
When it comes to actually pounding the pavement, the phrase "green jobs" sometimes falls flat, and its co-option, the phenomenon known as "greenwashing," is growing; last year, for instance, the big-box store Wal-Mart convened a Green Jobs Council. And it's not unlikely that the term will be co-opted and confused even further, particularly as cash-strapped states and communities scramble to grab a gooey piece of the federal stimulus pie, and lawmakers try to appease constituents worried about either the economy or the environment—or both. In New Mexico, the state's plentiful solar and wind resources, combined with a cheap labor force and plenty of developable land, have lawmakers and resource specialists touting the state's ability to become a nationwide leader in the new green economy. The New Mexico congressional delegation is also highlighting work by the state's nuclear weapons laboratories, hoping the nuclear pork that has poured into the state for decades might be replaced with funding for renewable energy and climate-change research.
But as the economy continues to stagger and the effects of climate change become more obvious, many on the local front lines of the green-jobs movement believe the chasm between rhetoric and reality also grows more discernible. They say the state's best hope for transformation—environmental and economic—may lie with its youth.
If they get the opportunity.
Javier Gonzales dropped out of school his junior year. Now 20 years old, he has worked at YouthWorks for approximately a year, moving from the river crew to the energy crew. Along the way, he earned his GED and is now taking a full-time course load at Santa Fe Community College, where he majors in environmental technologies.
In August, SFCC broke ground on its Sustainable Technologies Center, although the college has been emphasizing alternative energy and green jobs for 15 years, according to President Sheila Ortego.
Right now, SFCC offers classes and programs in everything from solar/wind energy and biofuels to energy-audit training and green-building construction. In fact, Ortego was recently invited by the American Association of Community Colleges to speak in Washington DC.
"They felt we were leaders in the area," she says. "There are a lot of people doing it across the nation, but they think we're ahead of the game."
For Gonzales, those classes, along with his work on the energy crew, were transformative.
"I didn't really realize how big of a carbon footprint we left as people until I started to take these classes and kind of saw how the generations before us clearly had no idea," he says, dimples flashing. "So now it's cool to be the generation that's working towards fixing it and coming up with more energy-efficient ways to get stuff done."
Crew member Lauren Herrera, 25, says she knew nothing about the environment. Now, she ticks off the ways in which the crew helps low-income families:
"We change their door sweeps, give them CFL light bulbs, install low-flow aerators and weather stripping on their doors," she says. "That way they save money on their bills and save the environment, too."
Twenty-one-year-old Daniel Padilla had worked as a server and for UPS before coming to YouthWorks. Now, he's taking mechanical and electrical engineering classes at SFCC.
And crew supervisor Jose Miguel Olivas, 28, envisions someday combining his plumbing experience with what he has been learning at YouthWorks and in community college. He'd like to be a journeyman and someday run his own company—one that would focus on solar hot-water heating.
Father to a 6-year-old daughter, Olivas adds that he, too, had no idea about carbon footprints. "We need to start doing something to reduce that, so our kids could have a future," he says.
Sitting in an unheated portable building, talking about their pasts and their futures, the four have all come a long way. All the YouthWorks participants grew up lacking opportunities—some had trouble with the law, spent time in prison or gangs, or worked dealing drugs. What is remarkable isn't just how far they've come within their own lives but, rather, that they are already light-years ahead of many New Mexicans when it comes to understanding emerging green industries.
The need for action on the economy and the environment has become increasingly obvious. Equally relevant, many say, are the ways in which cities, schools, communities and families fail New Mexico's youth.
Having grown up in Santa Fe, Tobe Bott-Lyons knows firsthand that young people here sometimes feel their options are limited.
"The three choices they think they have are to leave—to go to Albuquerque or the East Coast or someplace like LA—and the other two are: die or go to jail," Bott-Lyons, the YouthWorks educational coordinator, says. "The chance to really make a life in Santa Fe—a sustainable career that's meaningful and that's family-supporting—hasn't really existed."
The city's economy is based largely on service and hospitality, not the most exciting career prospects for young people, he says. "So a lot of what we try to do is create options."
To do that, the 8-year-old nonprofit tries to reach as many young people as it can. Last summer, approximately 125 people—between the ages of 14 and 28—participated in YouthWorks' programs. Those were selected out of the more than 400 who applied.
"That's without doing any outreach," Bott-Lyons says, and notes that while some counselors and probation officers point kids his way, most come to the program via word-of-mouth.
"The number of young people who need this kind of program, just in Santa Fe, is much higher," he says. "We have to turn away so many young people who are saying, 'I want to change my life; I want to do something.'"
In addition to the energy crew and its work with the city—on the green-collar jobs program as well as a restoration project on the Santa Fe River—the nonprofit also runs the state-supported Youth Conservation Corps, which does land restoration work across northern New Mexico. Under the guidance of local contractor Joe Gammon, a green-building crew of 13 YouthWorks participants just completed work on a Habitat for Humanity home built to meet the new green-building codes.
Green jobs mean more than just solar panels and wind turbines, Bott-Lyons says, but he struggles with the amorphous definition of green jobs.
In a meeting recently, he found himself troubled by the changing definition.
"People were like, 'Green jobs are anything that advances the environment; if you work in a marketing firm and you move to paperless memos, that's a green job.'" Really? he asks, answering quickly: No. "Everybody wants to call it a green job because you're going to get more money, and you're going to get more PR," he says. "To me, the bigger push is about jobs that are sustainable for the community and for the environment and for the economy."
There are many signs of Gov. Bill Richardson's long support for green energy, Brendan Miller, the state's first green economy manager, notes. The governor declared New Mexico the Clean Energy State in 2004 and, in January, issued an executive order establishing the Green Jobs Cabinet [SFR Talk, Feb. 4: "Green Job No. 1"].
"The Green Jobs Cabinet was really about taking the next step [and answering the question]: What's the connection between our economy and the green economy?" Miller says.
For the state, the definition of green jobs, according to Miller, comes down to a simple one-liner: "Family-supporting career-track jobs that directly contribute to preserving or enhancing environmental quality."
That definition applies to jobs within industries such as renewable energy, energy efficiency, recycling, ecotourism and sustainable agriculture. But, he says, it also includes people working on any company's environmental compliance, waste reduction or energy efficiency. "You have those jobs in pretty much every industry," he says.
Green jobs are an important—and emerging—part of the state's economy for three reasons, he adds. Not only is the United States striving toward energy independence and the recession driving the need for job creation, but environmental issues—in particular, climate change—have people worried.
"People are very concerned," he says, "and are looking for solutions that reduce [carbon] emissions, protect our environment and continue to allow our economy to thrive."
And the industry is growing. Miller points to a June 2009 study from The Pew Charitable Trusts, which shows that between 1998 and 2007, green jobs grew by 50 percent in New Mexico—25 times the rate of overall job growth. According to the same study, the state also attracted $148 million in venture capital in the past three years, more than half of which has been invested in clean energy.
The growth is impressive, but the numbers themselves remain relatively small. Statewide, in 2007, the "clean-energy economy" accounted for 4,815 jobs, 577 businesses and 95 patents.
In a brand-new report slated for delivery to the governor, the cabinet offers a slew of recommendations. These range from incentivizing renewable energy, moving renewable energy to markets outside the state, offering predictable statewide incentives for solar, offering incentives to solar manufacturers willing to locate in the state, expanding green-jobs training programs, developing New Mexico as an ecotourism destination and developing low-carbon transportation jobs.
Some of the pressure to develop green jobs is coming from the federal government.
"The state energy department is receiving multi-millions of dollars that will basically be granted out to local communities, cities, towns and tribes for energy efficiency and clean-energy projects," Miller says. There also is money for green-job training, and the Finance Authority received funds to weatherize low-income homes.
In early September, US Sens. Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall, both D-NM, announced that the US Department of Energy released $1.3 million in funds to six counties and cities in the state from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Santa Fe County received $50,000.
There are also federal funds available for high-tech research and development, such as the Smart Grid Demonstration Project. In August, the state submitted a proposal to win $50 million to construct five such demonstration projects across the state. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act set aside $4.5 billion for the development of transmission systems that would minimize environmental impacts and increase efficiency nationwide; the project also would require matching funds from private and public partners.
Unlike some traditional job development, green jobs can also help rural communities. Sure, solar-panel component factories are great for cities such as Albuquerque, and Santa Fe has its fair share of green-building contractors and solar companies. But wind farms and solar fields definitely benefit rural communities, Toni Balzano, public information officer for the state's Economic Development Department, says.
"New Mexico is really plagued with getting jobs for rural communities, but about two weeks ago, wind turbines in Estancia provided jobs for 10 people," she says. "That may not sound like a lot, but that is a lot for a town that size."
While the state—as well as cities such as Albuquerque—tends to focus largely on wooing large companies to locate in the region, Shrayas Jatkar, a Sierra Club building environmental communities conservation organizer, says green jobs should mean concentrating on energy conservation and efficiency right here at home. New Mexicans should focus on slimming energy use and cutting costs, he says, not only because it's better in the long-run for the environment, but also because it saves money. New energy generation—even if it is something like a large-scale solar project—costs more than simply cutting back on the state's vast energy usage.
"What stares me in the face the most is the lack of attention that's being paid to the low-hanging fruit, which is energy efficiency," he says, pointing out that weatherization of homes, commercial buildings, schools and government offices is a "huge industry that's waiting to happen." State and local governments haven't really stepped up to the plate on that issue—nor have the state's labor unions. "They should be jumping up and down, and grabbing jobs for their members, but they're not," he says. "And that's pretty short-sighted given how big an industry this could be."
As for local governments, the cash saved on operating costs in buildings could surely be put to better use, such as paying public employees.
"In many ways, the state of New Mexico and local governments are doing a great job doing things like promoting big solar industries to come to New Mexico—that's fine, I'm not saying we shouldn't have those jobs come to New Mexico," Jatkar says. But those same bundles of cash—in the form of incentives and tax breaks—that local governments use to entice industry, he says, "could be spent on many more jobs right away—we could have a well-trained energy workforce in New Mexico of people going out and doing energy audits, weatherizing and retrofitting buildings."
Since heading to Washington DC earlier this year, freshman congressman Ben Ray Luján, D-NM, has been focusing on green jobs and strengthening New Mexico's connection to green industries. His interest in the issue was cultivated, he says, during his time on the state's Public Regulation Commission, on which he advocated for an increase in the state's reliance upon renewable energy.
New Mexico can lead the nation in green energy and jobs, he says, thanks to the presence of solar and wind resources. The state must take full advantage, he says, of the expertise present within its national laboratories and universities. "This is something that is all-encompassing, and we need to do all we can be doing with small businesses and technology transfer around Sandia and Los Alamos," Luján says. "The job opportunities that are being created—that have already been created and that are alive and well today—are about being smarter about the way we do things."
New Mexico also is a proven leader in sustainability, he says.
Looking around northern New Mexico, where he grew up, families have lived sustainably for generations: They are smart about cultivating local foods, using water and energy wisely, and building practical homes.
"The way we built our homes for many, many years around New Mexico, we did it so they were cool in the summer and hot in the winter," he says. "It's important how much sustainability was a part of our daily life."
As chairman of the House of Representative's Congressional Hispanic Caucus' Green Economy and Renewable Energy Task Force, Luján offered an amendment to the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 that would provide funding for clean-energy job training and education programs at Hispanic-serving institutions and tribal colleges. (Having passed the House, that bill still awaits a vote in the Senate.)
Luján also recently invited YouthWorks educational coordinator Bott-Lyons and Executive Director Melynn Schuyler, as well as two program graduates, Dominic Cantu and Douglas Rael, to speak before the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute's annual policy conference.
"Those two guys stole the show, telling people not to give up, telling us to make sure we're including everyone and not just a select few," he says. "And I'm looking to them to be a part of those solutions," Luján says.
Those solutions can't include business as usual. So says Greg Mello of the nonprofit Los Alamos Study Group. He believes for an authentic transformation to occur, lawmakers can't just apply the "slogan or veneer" of green jobs to the usual suspects—aka the state's nuclear facilities.
"The notion that the nuclear labs are going to 'lead' us anywhere good is not supported by all of the available data," he says. "The labs are all about the conquest of nature, not about working with nature. And you just can't change them—not overnight, not in five years, maybe in 50 years. But we don't have 50 years."
It's a contradiction in terms, he says, to talk about green jobs at a nuclear weapons laboratory. But the kicker, he says, concerns jobs: "The labs produce very few, but highly paid, jobs."
Investing in communities is much better than pumping money into elite institutions, he says. Just as Santa Fe's disadvantaged youth are making the transition from dead-end choices to actively building a better world, so can the rest of New Mexicans.
"This is the transition we all face," he says. "It's very tempting to wring our hands at the situation in this country. But just around the corner, we can find a whole new level of community, energy and fulfillment by really getting involved to change things for the better."
Young people around the state are hungry for those opportunities right around the corner—and many are eager to work on solutions toward both economic and environmental sustainability.
Juan Reynosa, field organizer for New Mexico Youth Organized, grew up in Hobbs, an area of the state heavily dependant on the oil and gas industry. His father has worked in that field for 35 years. Friends have joined that industry as well and, as jobs have dried up, Reynosa has seen them stare down a lack of opportunity.
Green jobs were one of the first issues the nonprofit tackled, developing a Green Jobs Campaign, Reynosa says. There is the matter of New Mexico's potential for solar, wind and geothermal development—the state is ranked second in the nation in terms of solar potential, 12th for wind potential. But green jobs also are about offering opportunities to New Mexico's workers—young workers in particular.
"I grew up in this state, and I'll tell you straight up, there are not enough opportunities for youth, and the ones that are there a lot of times seem to be for a select group of youth in New Mexico," he says.
The green-jobs concept is about accessibility and allowing people to build themselves from the ground up to a good career, he says. It also shows that industries aren't always there just to make profits, but also to help people. And that, he says, resonates in New Mexico.
"All my friends in New Mexico, we have a great sense of pride, and to be able to still live in our state and make something out of ourselves and build on that is very important to me, and to a lot of my friends," he says, echoing Bott-Lyons when he points out the brain drain; New Mexico's brightest youth often leave the state for college and then find greater opportunities elsewhere.
"I really do feel like that's one of the reasons why we always are at the bottom of the list on so many categories," he adds.
But it doesn't have to be that way, Reynosa says.
New Mexico is on the cusp of an opportunity that could help people and communities—as well as build new industries and bring money into the state. For the 27-year-old organizer, transformation of the state's workforce and future would also mean more young people could stay in New Mexico—"closer to their family and closer to the things they love." SFR