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Generation Green

New Mexico’s youth may be the state’s best chance for transforming its economy—and future

September 30, 2009, 12:00 am

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.”

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Echo Gallegos and Jacqueline Gibbs explain YouthWorks’ Southside watershed-restoration project to Shrayas Jatkar.

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.

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