Recently, I was asked to speak at the Green Festival, an annual convention of eco-progressive activism, held in San Francisco. The panel I was on was called “Trees for Life” – Planting Trees to Save Our Lives and Restore Our Communities.” When my time to speak arrived, I told the audience that newly-reelected President Obama needs to create a green jobs agency along the lines of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) — one of the so-called “alphabet agencies” created by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933, as part of the New Deal. The statement was met with rousing cheers; clearly, this was something many people would support enthusiastically, if the government were to fund it.
A few days later, Urban Releaf participated in the Partners in Community Forestry conference in Sacramento. We were there to speak about our innovative urban forest education and stewardship training program (UFEST), on a panel featuring Greg Tarver, Jr., UR’s Director of Education, as well as two of our young staffers, Jamal Davis and Hakim Davis. They described how the Oakland program, built around community engagement, leadership training, and educational curricula, is becoming a national model. I felt proud as I watched the young people I’ve mentored speak with conviction and passion about revitalizing urban areas, one neighborhood at a time.
Those two experiences got me to thinking. First and foremost, our young people need jobs. This is especially true of young African American men from the inner-city, who face significant challenges with respect to higher education and sustainable employment.
What’s also needed is investment in our urban communities, whose systemic ills — toxic pollution, poor physical and mental health, crime, violence, substance abuse, and the double-edged sword of incarceration and recidivism — are the result of decades of institutional neglect.
Time and time again, domestic policy has failed to address this reality. However, programs such as UFEST help engage urban youth and young adults in caring for the communities they live in, while addressing both the need for gainful employment and for proactive environmental and ecological health awareness.
Unfortunately, urban forestry programs are often severely underfunded, even as billions of dollars are poured into overcrowded jails and failed “tough on crime” policies. No matter how innovative they may be, obtaining funding for these programs from state, local, and federal agencies means navigating bureaucratic red tape and competing with similar organizations seeking the same grants. There’s got to be an easier way.
When Obama was first elected in 2008, it was with a mandate of change and promises of a progressive environmental policy. However, his plan to expand green jobs programs was fiercely opposed by the Republican-controlled Senate. Fast-forward to 2012: Obama’s reelection was due at least in part to environmental concerns raised by Hurricane Sandy, which seemed to confirm that global warming is not only not a myth, but can lead to catastrophic events. At the same time, the national recession which has lingered for five years is looking more and more like the Great Depression 2.0. Now that Obama’s mandate has been renewed, the green jobs agenda should be revisited. In order for green job training programs to be effective at creating pathways out of poverty, they have to be attached to actual jobs. And who better to create jobs than the US government?
Between 1933 and 1942, the CCC employed hundreds of thousands of young people, who planted over three billion trees on government-owned rural properties and helped to grow the national park system. There’s no reason the Obama administration can’t take the initiative to revitalize our nation, just like FDR did. It’s time for a new New Deal and an urban version of the CCC.
My vision is for an updated urban forestry program focused on economically-disadvantaged communities with high rates of environmental pollution. Such a program would increase the community health index by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, lower crime rates by boosting employment, and encourage community-building. Most importantly, it could result in career paths in urban forestry, giving a push to this growing industry by creating a cadre of skilled workers.
Can Obama create green jobs for urban youth? Yes, he can!
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