Three young men and a young woman roll up to a house in a junky old van. They have tattoos and wear baggy clothes. They’re Hispanic. This is not their neighborhood.
Burglars? A watchful neighbor thought so, and called police.
“The lady thought we looked suspicious. She was profiling us quick,” the group’s leader, 28-year-old Mike Olivas, recalls.
In reality, Olivas and his crew—part of a local “green jobs” training program—were just waiting for the homeowner to show up so they could change the lightbulbs and install insulation.
No one got arrested. In that sense, they made out better than Harvard African American Studies Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., who was arrested this month on the porch of his own home after a neighbor called police to report a burglary.
Olivas and his team—Javier Gallegos, Lauren Herrera and Ben Valdez—are older and more experienced than the typical crew fielded by YouthWorks, the vocational training nonprofit that oversees the jobs program.
But these trainees have something in common with their younger peers: Were it not for their employment, they “would be dismissed as gangsters,” Daniel Werwath, who helped design the green jobs program, says.
Werwath is a resource development manager for The Housing Trust, which is implementing the program with YouthWorks.
This month, the Santa Fe City Council agreed to steer $65,000 worth of federal economic stimulus money toward funding the energy crew’s work through the summer, enough to install free energy-efficiency upgrades on 200 homes. The Sierra Club funded a 100-home pilot project earlier this year.
Granted, there is a liberal feel-good element to the crew’s work. “It’s like the Obama program—at-risk youth, green energy, jobs training,” Werwath says.
That aside, the project accomplishes something many stimulus programs have not: It provides direct employment to people who would otherwise be jobless. “You look at what they actually paid to do [with the stimulus], and it’s pave a road,” Werwath says.
Although the work involved is more traditionally blue-collar than “green-collar,” as it’s advertised, the program does provide opportunities to young people whose tattoos and criminal records might otherwise render them unemployable.
“Everybody makes mistakes. Some people end up in the system. Once you end up in the system, it’s harder to get a job. If you can’t get a job, what are you going to do but get in more trouble?” YouthWorks Educational Coordinator Tobe Bott-Lyons says. “I don’t think this country gets that: There’s other ways to deal with our community problems besides jails.”
The YouthWorks energy crew is keenly aware of their status within the social services system. “We’re all ‘at-risk,’” Gallegos, 20, says with a touch of irony. He dropped out of high school in his junior year and this month got his GED.
What would he be doing without this gig on the energy crew? “That’s a hard one. Probably not working,” Gallegos says. “I kinda don’t want to think about it.”
Herrera, 24, expected YouthWorks to place her on river cleanup duty, but was happily placed with the energy crew. She’s had a hard time holding down work for the past couple of years. After her 6-year-old son was murdered by his father, who then killed himself, she “got into a lot of trouble.” (Court records show shoplifting, DWI, resisting an officer and possession.)
Olivas thinks his experience working for his uncle, a plumber, landed him the crew leader spot. He’s been married nine years and has a 6-year-old daughter. Yet he apparently still qualifies as an “at risk youth.”
It’s just the three of them today; the fourth crew member, Valdez, is out sick. After lunch at YouthWorks, they drive down Agua Fria Street to La Cieneguita, a decade-old Housing Trust development. The van is packed with energy efficiency kits, which include compact fluorescent light bulbs, hot water heater and pipe insulation, weather stripping, low-flow showerheads and caulk.
The materials cost approximately $100; YouthWorks estimates that once installed, they’ll save a homeowner $146 in electricity and natural gas costs over a year. (Organizers will know for sure a year from now, after they have monitored energy usage in participating homes.)
The first house on the crew’s list is owned by Dyana Todd, a teacher at Santa Fe Public Schools’ Nye Bilingual Early Childhood Center. Outside is a bright garden; inside is an impressive collection of garage sale bric-a-brac.
Todd is excited the crew is here. She peppers them with questions about saving energy: Should she replace her 10-year-old stove? Buy a flat-screen television? What about the windows? The crew knows some but not all of the answers.
The group splits up the work and finishes in under an hour. Herrera changes the lightbulbs while Olivas changes the showerheads. Gallegos—the crew’s designated “fuck-up,” they joke—prepares to add insulation to the hot water heater, but it has too many calcium deposits. Gallegos tells Dodd about another program, at Los Amigos Educational Resource Center, that can defray the cost of a replacement.
After Olivas and Gallegos screw weather stripping under the door, the crew members pile into the van and head to their next appointment. They hope to find a way to keep the work going after the stimulus funding runs out. After all, there are another 27,000 houses in Santa Fe, give or take.