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.”