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Green Communities are Empowered Communities: Reflections from SXSW Eco

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This post is part of Triple Pundit’s ongoing coverage of the SXSW Eco conference. For the rest, please visit our SXSW Eco page here.

By Angela Mason

During the first week of October, nearly 3,000 people gathered in Austin, Texas for SXSW Eco. This three-day event brings together representatives from science, industry, education, NGOs, policy and business to “explore, engage and co-create solutions for a sustainable world.” I was proud to participate, alongside Oscar Medina of the Western Institute for Leadership Development, in a green jobs panel moderated by community activism professor, researcher and advocate Raquel Pinderhughes.

During our panel, Green Job Creation: Path to Community Empowerment, we explored a variety of complex topics, drawing out the connections between the diverse programs the three of us oversee and how it all ties back to the opportunities provided by employers in green job sectors. Simply put, a green job is one that contributes to preserving or restoring the quality of the environments in which we live. For example, roles that protect ecosystems, increase resource efficiency, reduce waste or de-carbonize the economy can all be classified as green jobs. My role on the panel centered on how the Chicago Botanic Garden’s urban agriculture program— Windy City Harvest — contributes to community empowerment via green job creation.

Our moderator, Raquel, is the driving force behind Roots of Success: an empowering environmental literacy and job readiness curriculum and certification program that paves the way for underrepresented individuals to secure living wage jobs and improve the health and environmental wellbeing of their communities. Educator Oscar Medina uses the Roots of Success curriculum to share his passion for science and open up new career possibilities for his students at the Western Institute for Leadership Development. The curriculum also underpins the apprenticeship aspect of Windy City Harvest.

Through a variety of programs, Windy City Harvest provides training, transitional jobs and educational pathways to individuals with barriers to employment and increases educational opportunities in Chicago’s underserved neighborhoods. Our graduates go on to related seasonal and full-time work in wholesale distribution, rooftop farms, commercial aquaponics and community farms.

At SXSW Eco, Raquel, Oscar and I discussed our challenges and successes and how training programs need to remain closely aligned with employment partners’ needs and continuously work to ensure the skills we teach are the ones in demand. That demand, however, is a moving target. The concept of a 'green job' is evolving rapidly and differs regionally. To stay on top of this shifting demand landscape, we need to ask the right questions: What does my city have in store for its water system in the next 10 years? What about the waste management, energy and agriculture systems? What skills will be required to transition those systems to greener, more efficient options to better serve communities in the future?

Roots of Success, Windy City Harvest and the Western Institute for Leadership Development, along with like-minded programs all over the country, are preparing participants for the world of work or post-secondary education -- strengthening communities, boosting health and providing opportunities to underserved populations.

SXSW Eco was an inspiring experience for me, and it underscored the need for positive collective action to overcome the challenges our communities and our planet face. As we continue to feel the effects of climate change and the economic downturn, green jobs can play a role in a variety of solutions. As educators, we must continue to focus our efforts on equipping young people and job-seekers with the skills to power a greener economy.

This year’s SXSW Eco conference may be over, but the conversation is just getting started. I hope you’ll take this opportunity to explore our programs, learn more about challenges our participants and communities face, and join us as we work toward solutions!

Image credit: Rebecca Hedges Lyon, courtesy of SXSW Eco

Angela Mason is Director of Urban Agriculture for Chicago Botanic Garden.

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